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In a report from November 2021, a Kabul resident recalled going to the Ariana Cinema in the late-1980’s, during the rule of the Soviet-backed president Najibullah. At that time, there were more than 30 cinemas operating around Afghanistan. She had just got married, and she often went to the Ariana Cinema with her husband to see Bollywood films, sitting without segregation.
At that time. war was raging across the country as Najibullah’s government battled an American-led coalition of warlords and Islamic militants. When Najibullah was ousted in 1992, the former allies turned on each other in heavy fighting that resulted in substantial damage to the Ariana Cinema, along with the surrounding neighbourhood.
The Ariana Cinemas had a revival which came after the Taliban was ousted following the 2001 US-led invasion of the country. The French government helped rebuild the Ariana Cinema in 2004, part of a flood of billions of Dollars in international aid that attempted to reshape Afghanistan, and the cinema saw a new burst of popularity. Indian films were always the biggest draw at the Ariana Cinema, as were action movies, particularly those featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme. In addition, as Afghanistan’s domestic film industry revived, the Ariana Cinema played the handful of Afghan movies produced each year.
But at that time audiences were overwhelmingly men, In Afghanistan’s conservative society, cinemas were seen as a male space, and few women attended.
The Ariana Cinema suffered damage caused by a suicide bomber on 18th January 2010, but it was able to re-open.
However, when the Taliban regained power in August 2021, they ordered all cinemas in the country to close.
The Ariana Cinema is owned by the Kabul municipality. Its 20 employees are government workers and they remain on the payroll, albeit they are only receiving part of their salary. Nevertheless, they still show up for work while the Taliban decide whether to allow cinemas to re-open.
Although the employees are all male, the director of the Ariana Cinema is female. However since the Taliban takeover, 26 years old Asita Ferdous, the first woman in that post, is not even allowed to enter the cinema, with all female government employees ordered to stay away from their workplaces so that don’t mix with me, until the Taliban decide whether they will be allowed to work.
Ms. Ferdous had been appointed as the director of the Ariana Cinema in 2020. She previously led the Kabul municipality’s Gender Equality division, where she had worked to gain equal pay for women employees and install women as senior offers in the capital’s police departments. When she move to the Ariana Cinema, the male staff were surprised, but she said, “they have been very cooperative and have worked well with me”. She focused on making the cinema more welcoming to women, with one side of the auditorium reserved for couples and families, where women would feel more comfortable.
In March 2021, the Ariana Cinema hosted a festival of Afghan films that proved very popular, attended by Afghan actors who held talks with audiences.
The future of the Ariana Cinema, and all other cinemas across Afghanistan, is extremely uncertain.
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