Today, however, the tradition is in danger of fading away completely.
While the once flourishing cinema culture wilted under the pressures of the economic siege of the 1990s, it has effectively died as the country’s civil life collapsed following the US invasion in 2003. Added to the intimidating security conditions which have made public outings so daunting, the availability of satellite television and the latest in Arab and foreign movies on cheap CDs, has made cinema-going less popular than ever.
The number of cinemas in Baghdad alone has plummeted from forty to a lowly five, all located in a small area near the traditional commercial and entertainment center.
Kathem al-Kanani, manager of the capital’s Granada cinema, laments the “golden days” of the 1980s “that have gone forever.” His cinema is grubby and old, and its furniture crumbling. While the posters outside the hall highlight exciting Turkish, Arab and foreign films, the films on offer are in fact old and unpopular.
“Before the embargo, we were showing local, Arab and modern foreign films. The cinema was full when we began the film,” he said. “Iraqi families used to come to the cinema and watch movies as part of Baghdad’s night life.” Today, he is showing an old Iraqi movie produced in the 1920s and nearly nobody has come to see it.
Many other cinemas have faced a similar fate and as the number of cinema-goers has dwindled they have been forced out of business. One cinema, the al-Khayam Granada, once famous across the Middle East, became a furniture workshop in 2003. Others have been converted into carpentry workshops and even grain stores.
The few that remain are in very poor condition. The buildings and equipment have not been renovated for years, the movies on offer are old, and those watching are few in number. Even the old employees seem to date back to a distant age.
According to one cinema employee, Kareem Abdul-Amir who works at the al-Mashreq cinema, the Ministry of Culture is to blame for “not paying attention to cinemas.” He says that no government assistance has been given to them to reverse the decline. In the midst of years of fighting the government has all but forgotten cultural pursuits.
Abdul-Amir says that some cinemas have resorted to showing pornography to attract new viewers, taking advantage of weak regulatory supervision. These days most of the films on offer at his cinema are focused on sexual content, even if the movies are not explicitly pornographic. Sex scenes are printed on posters and displayed on advertisement boards at the entrance of cinema halls in a desperate bid to lure in new customers.
Yet, even here the cinemas are struggling to compete as cheap CDs are proving to be hard competition. Near the al-Mashreq cinema, facing the famous al-Harj market, young men sit daily, selling cheap copies of pornographic movies. Breaking all international copyright laws, they offer these films alongside the latest in Arab and international productions.
Meanwhile, some cafes in Saadoun Street also show films, often pornographic, charging customers an extra amount to watch the film while drinking their tea.
According to Iraqi filmmaker Hadi Mahood the decline of Iraqi cinemas reflects the broader decline of the country’s cultural and civil life. “Cinemas were a source of civilized behavior for Iraqis,” said Mahood. “A modern Iraq cannot be created without cinemas.”
As security slowly returns to the country, cinema lovers are hoping that a cinematic revival might beckon. However, to date, there are no plans to initiate such a renewal. It seems that cinema owners and film lovers will have to rely on their beautiful memories of days gone past for a while longer.
Even as business falls away, however, love keeps some going.
“It is not profit that keeps the business alive, rather it is my yearning and that of the workers which motivates us to keep the doors of the cinema open for the public,” says al-Kanani from the Granada cinema.