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7,000 Afghan Films Hidden From the Taliban Are Now Being Saved and Digitized

Habibullah Ali's efforts to digitally restore thousands of lost movies have turned him into the savior of Afghan film history.

An Afghan man operates a movie projector while his assistant looks at the screen at a cinema in Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, . Mazar's residents on Tuesday celebrated the Eid-al-Fitr holiday by streaming to a movie theater open for the first time in four yearsAFGHANISTAN, MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan

YURI KOZYREV/AP/REX/Shutterstock

You probably don’t know Habibullah Ali’s name, but he’s something of a hero when it comes to Afghan cinema. In the mid-1990s, Ali risked his life by hiding thousands of film reels from Taliban forces who invaded Afghanistan’s state-run movie company, Afghan Film. The Taliban banned popular entertainment during their rule from 1996-2001, and they would have destroyed some 7,000 films if it weren’t for Ali’s efforts.

“We did not expect to leave for our homes that day alive,” Ali told AFP in a profile saluting his efforts to preserve Afghan film history. “If they had found out we had hidden movies they would have killed us.”

Ali and his colleagues at Afghan Film hid film canisters all over the company’s building, and now those films are finally being saved and digitized nearly two decades later. According to Afghan Film general director Mohammad Ibrahim Arify, the film reels were buried underground or hidden in fake ceilings and in rooms blocked by brick walls.

“We were very scared but by God’s grace we were able to save the movies and now we have this culture alive,” Ali said.

According to Arify, there are 32,000 hours of 16mm film and 8,000 hours of 35mm film waiting to be digitized and preserved. The films range from state-produced features from the 1970s to documentary footage dating back to the 1920s.

“We are very proud of what we are doing because we are bringing the dead culture of Afghanistan to life by transferring the visual history of this country to digital,” Afghan Film employee M. Fayaz Lutfi told AFP.

The films provide a rare look back at Afghan history and culture from decades in the past. “We want our children to learn how Afghans used to live,” said Arif Ahmadi, another employee. That mission is on its way to being accomplished one digital transfer at a time.

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