Iraqi cinemas struggle to restore former glory

The Atlas film theatre in central Baghdad is a shadow of its former self - its red seats are badly torn and white neon lights flicker constantly, stopping only when a power cut turns them off entirely.

Its clients fill a handful of seats in the massive dusty hall.

The world over, cinema is associated with glitz and glamour but not so in Iraq where the few remaining theatres are largely empty and downtrodden, serving clients accused of seeking Western "perversions".

"Cinema is dead in Iraq," said Abu Ahmed, one of just 15 men who turned up to watch an eight-year-old French film, "Irreversible," starring Italian actress Monica Bellucci.

"Look, there's no one in the room. In the '90s, the Atlas used to be packed," he said, watching the first scenes of a movie that was judged disturbing by many Western viewers and would be considered offensive and against Islamic values by the vast majority of Iraqis.

"Now, the only people who come are the unemployed and those with time to kill," the 52-year-old civil servant added. "Me? I came here because I enjoy movies about the police."

Abu Ahmed declined to give his real name, a sign of the negative connotations of visiting the cinema in Iraq, where strict interpretations of Islam have been on the increase since the 2003 US-led invasion.

The Atlas itself carries faded posters that would likely spur the anger of many a religious conservative.

An advertisement for the nearly decade-old "Vanilla Sky" features Cameron Diaz in a skimpy swimsuit, while the poster for "Irreversible" shows Bellucci wearing a wet T-shirt, exposing her breasts.

The films themselves are a far cry from the quality which cinema-goers in most of the world would expect. In place of high-definition images and surround sound, Iraqi cinemas run grainy, flickering images and crackly sound.

Theatre owner Saad Hashim Ahmed explained the discrepancy.

The video being projected on screen was a poor-quality two-dollar pirated DVD bought from a Baghdad market, and tickets were also cheap, at just 1,000 Iraqi dinars (90 cents) per seat.

- 'Cinema is dead' -


"A 35mm copy in Egypt costs 20,000 dollars," said the 53-year-old man with grey hair and moustache. "We just do not have the money."

"Cinema is dead!" he moaned in a voice betraying his desperate efforts to keep the Atlas open. "Iraqis have lost contact with the cinema, they are not used to it anymore."

According to Ahmed, the downfall of Iraqi cinemas - just three are open in Baghdad today, compared to 25 in the capital and 30 more nationwide before the invasion - can be put down to the lack of security.

"After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the security situation deteriorated," he said. "After that, we had sectarian war. Every Iraqi family has fallen victim to this, so how can they go to the cinema?"

Another cinema goer, who did not want to be named, pinned the blame on another development in the aftermath of the invasion.

"People just watch television, they don't go out," the man said.

Post-Saddam Iraq has witnessed a massive growth in satellite television, with countless homes planting dishes and accessing hundreds of previously-unavailable channels from the region and around the world.

On the widely-made allegation in Iraq that cinemas are the haunt of voyeurs out to see nudity or of homosexuals, he replied: "Iraq is a tribal society. People are not used to films here."

Fuad al-Bayati and Thaer al-Hajj Mohammed, two Iraqi film producers who grew up in Baghdad, are out to change that.

Last year, Bayati and Mohammed bought the Semiramis, close to the Atlas in central Baghdad's Karrada district, and hope to restore it to its former glory of decades gone by.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the building was a hub for culture and was known for its screenings of Egyptian and European films.

"Iraqis are very cultured," Mohammed insisted. "Twenty years ago, right here, we could watch French films starring Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve and Yves Montand."

"Kids and families are eager to return to the cinema," said Mohammed, who together with his business partner wants to target young families by putting on performances of comedy theatre.

"They can see that our theatre is respectable and clean, and we hope they will begin coming to see films in the evening," with night-time security far improved from the dark days of 2006 and 2007, the part-time actor added.

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