There is Kabul as a manicured city, lights strung among the trees along the river. Actresses have beehive hairdos, knee-length skirts and cleavage. Boys and girls march together on a sports field. European hippies lounge in the sun.
The ultra-conservative Taliban wanted these images destroyed, torching thousands of cassettes after locking the doors of the television studios and cinemas and turning off the music when they took control in 1996.
That these glimpses of the past can be shown today in Kabul‘s famous Ariana cinema, itself destroyed in the four-year civil war that preceded the Taliban’s rule, is because of great risks by archive staff.
At Afghan Film they hid tapes in the ceiling and a secret room, breaking power circuits to defeat Taliban searches.
At the several-storey Radio and Television of Afghanistan (RTA) building, they split up the collection and squirrelled cassettes into the basement and scores of other rooms, pretending the archive had been looted.
“If the Taliban knew that for example these people kept some tapes in the basement, they might have punished them seriously or they might have put them in prison”
“They worked with a lot of danger for themselves, for their families,” says Rahman Panjshiri, RTA head of planning and international relations.
“If the Taliban knew that, for example, these people kept some tapes in the basement, they might have punished them seriously or they might have put them in prison,” he says.
The Taliban torched two shipping containers of tapes outside the Afghan Film office, although staff had made sure they were only prints of Hindi and Russian films. RTA surrendered 1500 cassettes of foreign music.
First Afghan film
But 14,500 hours of television footage survived, dating from 1978, as did 45,000 hours of radio starting in the 1940s and more than 100,000 hours of film, including the first Afghan movie, Love and Friendship, made about 60 years ago.
Having emerged through all that, the precious store is under threat again, this time from the humidity and temperature changes that destroy film and tape.
Films can again be shown
Since 2002 the French National Audio-Visual Institute (INA) has been helping to digitalise the footage, a painstaking process that has covered only about 1200 hours of material – an occasion marked by the showing at the Ariana last month.
The slowness of the project, with the radio archives only due to be started on in 2006, worries Panjshiri.
“We want to expedite the process because our archives are now in a very bad condition. Within the next 10 years nothing will be left in the archive to digitalise,” he says.
“If we lose these things, it means that we will have lost our culture, our heritage, everything.”
History on film
The footage includes pictures of some of the ruinous events from which Afghanistan is only just recovering.
There are the first Red troops to enter Kabul after the 1979 Soviet invasion; the first interview with Babrak Karmal, who arrived in Kabul on a Russian tank and became president in 1979; the daily skirmishes of the war between anti-Soviet mujahidin (1992-1996) that killed 50,000 people in the capital alone.
“Afghanistan is destroyed, Kabul is destroyed, we have these shots,” says the head of Afghan Film, Latif Ahmadi. “The wounded people in hospital, bombing in Kabul … most of the film is in this time, the war time.”
“Afghanistan is destroyed, Kabul is destroyed, we have these shots”
There are also images of the treasures of Afghanistan‘s rich culture that the Taliban destroyed: the 2000-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas, ancient artefacts that had been in the museum, videos of deceased singers who are still popular today but whose recordings were supposed to have vanished forever.
Afghan Film also has rare footage of president Najibullah and his brother who were dragged from a United Nations compound and strung up in the streets of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996.
“We have pictures, only two minutes. It was very, very dangerous because the Taliban did not allow anybody to take pictures,” Ahmadi says.
The rarest footage is from the Taliban period, because the government banned television, video and music as sinful.
“They turned Kabul into a very big grave. The silence at that time was like the silence of a graveyard,” says the RTA’s Panjshiri in his office still flecked by shrapnel from the civil war.
During the war, “it was a very bad situation but the people could say something, we could criticise everybody … but during the Taliban, if you wanted to criticise for example [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar, maybe they would cut out your tongue”.
“This archive is very important for the story of the country”
Panjshiri and Ahmadi went into exile, returning after the Taliban were removed in a US-led campaign in late 2001.
For them, the restoration of the archives is a source of pride, with plans for film festivals, documentaries and DVDs once the footage has been digitalised.
“This archive is very important for the story of the country,” says Ahmadi.
“When I tell somebody that before the 24, 25 years’ war in Afghanistan we had a culture, we had a high civilisation, the girls wore mini-skirts, nobody can guess that. But if we show some films from that time, they will be very excited,” he says.