KABUL — Here at Cinema Pamer in the Afghan capital, an Indian movie is showing on the big screen. There are 600 seats inside, but the cinema is mostly empty, with only some 150 people watching the film.
One of them is Said Agha, a soldier from the Afghanistan army who spoke before taking his seat. "I'm on leave," he says. "I came here to watch an interesting movie. But I wish they played more Afghan movies because we also have good films."
Pamer is one of the five remaining cinemas in Kabul, a city of six million people. Cinema Pamer manager Said Khalid says it's a challenging time for movie theaters to survive in Kabul. "Not many people are interested in going to cinemas anymore," he says.
It's a far cry from the cinematic glory days of the 1960s, after then-King Zahir started a state-run production house that also led to many other film studios mushrooming across the country. By most estimates, Afghanistan once had some 45 cinema companies, showing 60 films three times a day.
Atiq Allah, 57, fondly remembers those days. "Cinemas were open until midnight. Families went to cinemas and people of all ages loved watching movies," he says. "When I went to the cinema, I would have to rush to buy tickets. Some scalpers would be able to sell tickets at up to 13 times the original price."
But civil war changed everything, and ultimately under the Taliban regime, films were deemed un-Islamic. Film studios were demolished and movie theatres were turned into rubble.
But even after the fall of Taliban, the film industry is still struggling to regain popularity.
Said Khalid says movie producers are now facing new challenges. "We now have cable broadcasters, mobile phones, DVD players and more and more TV channels," he says. "People can watch movies anywhere they want. This is why we have less of an audience. We only have 200 people in the audience each day."
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And many younger Afghans, such as university student Muhammad Bashir, prefer to watch movies elsewhere. "Many people misuse the cinema and disturb others," he says. He notes that people often smoke, talk on their phones, and even clap and whistle at songs and action scenes.
Afghan author and historian Habib Allah Rafi explains why he thinks the audience responds in this way. "The war has made people more familiar with violent actions," he says. "Movie theaters are also showing violent movies without proper attention from the government. People are becoming more impolite while watching movies inside the theater."
Khalid hopes the Afghan movie industry can return to its past glory. "It's not even about us getting income from the movies," he says. "We just want cinemas to become popular again so that people can enjoy movie theaters and it can be a learning place for the public. Going to the cinema should be seen as a positive experience for people."