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Reel Life of Afghan Films: War and, Soon, Islam

Filmmakers in Afghanistan have withstood 10 years of Soviet occupation, seven years of an ongoing civil war, and a dire lack of resources only to find themselves targeted by the country's new, stricter Islamic government.

One of the first moves made by Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar after taking up his post was to close all the cinemas in Kabul and he ordered filmmakers to produce only Islamic films.

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There were not many cinemas left in a city that war has largely reduced to rubble. The ones that remained provided some relief for a population whose lives are marred by poverty and almost daily rocket attacks. Garish posters once adorned Kabul's cinemas and crowds of young men hung around outside, demonstrating a rare example of youth culture.

An old man standing in front of a cinema says he had spent half his life working behind the now-closed doors. The audiences who used to come to his cinema, he said, had nothing else to do.

"Now they're walking the streets," he says, "or getting involved in gambling. All the people that came here prayed, they were good Muslims. They just wanted to see films."

But not everyone is unhappy about the cinemas being closed. One local man says many had already abandoned them. "Most of Kabul's citizens are so frustrated by their economic and political situation," says Basir, "they have already forgotten about the fun things like cinema. If closing the cinemas is one condition of bringing peace to Kabul, then I'm sure people are ready to make that sacrifice."

Mr. Hekmatyar has said the doors will reopen only when the cinemas can show Afghan movies about Islam. Around 80 people, most working for nothing, make films on less than a shoestring budget.

"I will make films suitable for the government," film director Salim Shaheen says. "But I have always made films according to Islam."

Mr. Shaheen is the head of Keis Films, a private company that started 14 years ago and whose latest film, "Whirlpool," was made on a budget of $300. Shaheen raises money for his movies through video sales and government grants.

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"Whirlpool," the story of a poor man falling in love with a rich girl, was censored by the new government before it could be shown on state television. Scenes showing romantic love, singing, and the girl's suicide had to be cut. Originally called "No Survivors," the name was changed after seven actors and crew were killed in a rocket attack last October. Shaheen barely survived.

The rockets were fired by the fundamentalist Taliban group, which has been besieging Kabul. In the half of the country it controls, the Taliban has banned all film and television. Shattered TV sets and streams of video tape hang from lamp posts as a warning.

"When [Taliban] killed my people," says Shaheen, "I felt more like making films. I wanted to continue in the memory of those people because making films was what they liked doing."

Despite - or perhaps because of - the civil war, Afghan films have a high level of violence. Actors do their own stunts and often get hurt.

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