Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 2 October 2010 12:00 UK

Baghdad cinema sees 'heart breaking' decline

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Baghdad

A cinema in Baghdad
The cinema has been operating since the 1930s

I met a man the other day who runs a film institute, teaching young film-makers in Baghdad the art of making movies.

He told me something shocking - most of his students had never been to the cinema.

Why not?

"There are no cinemas in Baghdad anymore," he said.

That is the answer you always get, but it is not actually true. There are cinemas, but they are not the kinds of places you would want to bring a date, if you know what I mean.

So we went to see for ourselves.

A pair of steel shutters closed behind us with a mechanic clang and we found ourselves in a covered alleyway.

The light was dim, the air still and clammy. A podgy man with grey hair and a moustache sat listlessly on a chair outside, sweating slightly as he played with a string of prayer beads.

Behind his head were movie posters, some kung-fu flicks, others with more racy themes. There was a poster for the Hollywood movie Striptease, starring Demi Moore. Someone had tactfully blacked out her bare shoulders with marker pen.

He gave his name as Abu Ahmed. Could we go inside and have a chat, I asked him?

Under no circumstances. No, no and no again.

I insisted, and in the end he relented. But no cameras or recording equipment.

He led us through a corridor that stank of urine.

The screen had clearly once been state of the art: it was convex and huge

The doors to the auditorium were still open. There were about 20 men - all men - in the 400-seater hall. The opening credits were just beginning to roll.

It was impossible to tell just what kind of film it was from there, but the reaction of the audience was telling.

They craned their necks around, staring at us with a mixture of hostility and embarrassment. Clearly this was pornography of some sort.

The hall itself, dilapidated though it was, was a thing of beauty.

Red velvet flip-up seats, stained, ripped and covered in cigarette burns.

The screen had clearly once been state of the art: it was convex and huge. Up above the stalls there was a balcony decorated with raised and painted plaster relief.

"Please," said the man who collected the tickets. "Please leave, or we will lose all our customers."

So we left. But I wanted to see the auditorium properly. I asked if we could have a look around, once the show was over.

We were told to come back later.

Home entertainment

So we killed time by going to the nearby Thieves' Market.

DVD stall in Thieves' Market
Markets of full of illegal DVDs

There stallholders were doing a brisk trade in illegal DVDs - all the latest Hollywood releases, plus some Arabic films, and yet more pornography.

"Business is good," said a baby-faced boy in his teens, selling the things from a wooden crate on legs. "One dollar each," he said.

So here was one of the reasons behind the slow death of the cinema in Baghdad - the rise and rise of pirated DVD.

It all started in the 1990s, under economic sanctions. Imports were difficult to come by; money was scarce.

Then came the invasion, and two things happened. First, Saddam Hussein's ban on non-state TV was lifted. Satellite dishes sprouted across Baghdad like mushrooms.

Then the country descended into violence. And so, people preferred to enjoy what entertainment they could find in the relative safety of their own homes.

Hollywood legends

Back at the cinema, Oday Rasheed, the filmmaker, told me he used to come here in the 1970s and 80s, to see films by Fellini, Pasolini and Bergman.

Film maker Oday Rasheed
Film-maker Oday Rasheed is troubled by the decline in cinema's popularity

Walking round the empty auditorium today, he said he wanted to cry.

The state of Baghdad's cinemas today, he said, was a reflection of what has happened to his country.

And he blames religion. Iraq's new pious rulers, he says, have no need of culture. Indeed, he believes they see culture as a threat to their grip on power.

And so the cinemas are left to crumble.

I was about to leave, mulling over in my mind the thought that Iraq's religious politicians might unwittingly be responsible for filling the country's cinemas with pornography, when something strange happened.

The same men who had been so keen to get rid of us earlier, the ticket collector and his friends, suddenly wanted to show us around.

Ali, the projectionist looks at a film reel
The cinema has reels of old Hollywood classics as well as modern films

An old projectionist called Ali, with few teeth and a grubby white vest, led the way upstairs.

The room was full of old film reels in tin canisters. He selected one and slotted it expertly into one of the machines.

He flicked some switches, and as the light filtered through the dust in the hall, Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons appeared on the screen.

I asked manager Fadhil Khalaf why he kept all these old reels? After all, I could not imagine his current clientele wanting to watch some old Hollywood western.

It turns out that Mr Khalaf had been working in the cinema for 30 years. This picture house, formerly known as Roxy's, had been in business since the 1930s.

"I love these films," he said. "And so I keep them. But now the cinema is dead. Families don't come here any more."

Looking around at the empty auditorium he added: "It breaks my heart."

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