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Film Archivists as Freedom Fighters: Restoring Afghan Films Destroyed by the Taliban

In the mid-1990s, many films were lost during the Taliban's reign of Afghanistan, but archivists in Kabul are trying to wrest these movies from being lost to history.

Afghanistan

A screenshot from Afghanistan’s film archive

When the Taliban held the dominant power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, many of the country’s artworks were destroyed or left to decay, including a vast body of films. The Taliban regime also banned the creation and release of film, period.

On a new episode of the Post Reports podcast, The Washington Post visits archivists in Kabul working to wrest the country’s vast trove of documentary films — many of which depict a different, arguably more Westernized side of Afghanistan — from being lost to history.

“They compared the process of preserving them to preserving other artifacts that are crucial to understanding Afghan history,” said reporter Siobhán O’Grady. “These films show what Afghanistan was before, and what so many people still aspire to reclaim, whenever the war does eventually end.”

When the regime took hold, “The Taliban ended up storming the National Film Archive, and a lot of the films were hidden because the works knew that something like that would happen,” O’Grady said. According to The Washington Post, the films featured images of women with their hair uncovered or in plainclothes, mingling openly with men. Given the penalties tied to freedom of expression, the National Film Archives knew that the films were at risk. The Archives managed to hide many of the films behind false walls, or move them to another location.

“They’re very old films on old reels, so they need very specific care. They need to be in climate-controlled temperature, and they need to be washed and clean,” O’Grady said. “They stayed in the building, decaying, and finally a few years ago the staff started to think about digitizing them.”

It’s an expensive and time-consuming process. Currently there are 10 restorationists on staff, working full-time six days a week “diligently cleaning and watching the movies over and over again” for quality control.

The first movie to break out of Afghanistan post-Taliban was 2003’s narrative feature “Osama,” which brought the country’s cinematic culture a higher profile when the film received the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Afghanistan submitted the film to the Academy Awards, but “Osama” failed to land a nomination. In total, the country has submitted 14 films to the Oscars, none of which have been nominated.

Listen to The Washington Post’s podcast here.

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