A visit to the movies in Mosul is not what it used to be. Cinema employees are threatened by extremists and that 90s blockbuster may well be replaced by porn without warning.
Mosul was once a city well known for its cinematic passions, attracting intellectuals keen to see another side of filmic life and local people with a passion for quality cinema. But now the bells that used to announce the beginning of a film are hardly ever heard.
And the posters in the cinema showcase windows, advertising some movie form the 1980s or 1990s, barely seem to attract a glance from passers-by. Mosul is losing yet another important part of its cultural life.
Mosul is one of Iraq’s most populous cities and Ahmed Saeed, 34, remembers the golden days of movie going here. He was once employed at the Sindbad Cinema in Mosul and says there used to be 11 cinemas in the city, open seven days a week.
“Today there are only three cinemas in Mosul,” Saeed says. Saeed used to work at the Sindbad with 15 colleagues. But along with most of the others he was made redundant some time ago. He now sells used clothing from a cart on the street.
“Two hours have passed and nobody has gone in,” he says, nodding over at the nearby Nujoum Cinema, near where he was selling clothes today. “The most people we get coming in here every day is about 40,” the manager at one of Mosul’s remaining cinemas told NIQASH; he didn’t want to give his name.
“That’s about 90 percent less than past years.” “The people who had a passion for the movies and who loved the fantasy they provided no longer come,” said the cinema manager, who had spent 35 years in the movie industry.
“The only people who come now are teenagers and people who want to spend time away from their homes.” He then told how the Sindbad Cinema had become a warehouse and the Hamra Cinema was demolished, now a parking lot.
And another movie theatre was supposed to be turned into a restaurant soon. “Such a pity,” the manager sighed. The manager felt that security problems were the main problem. Extremist groups commonly targeted cinema staff, he said.
From a safe in the corner of his office, he took out four envelopes. Displayed on the table, were letters sent from various armed groups, all of which threatened the cinema and employees with assassination. “The last letter came just three months ago," he said.
“These kinds of threats are our major concern in this industry.” Movies had started to become less popular in Mosul in the 1990s already but the chaos and violence that followed 2003’s US-led invasion of Iraq signed local cinemas’ death warrant.
“War and violence are the main reasons the people of Mosul don’t go to the movies anymore,” local historian Azhar al-Obeidi told NIQASH. But in his opinion, it was also the style of films now being shown. “They target teenagers and young people,” he explained.
“Families are often reluctant to attend movies like that.” Often in Iraq, where several generations will share a home and where young people won’t move out until they are married, a trip to the movies is one way for Iraqi youth to meet friends in relative privacy.
And then of course there are the reasons that affect movie going in the west too. “Many people now have access to satellites and there are so many cheap pirated DVDs,” al-Obeidi said. “So cinemas have really lost their charm ad their influence.”
Additionally movie goers have got a bad reputation in the relatively conservative city. Going into one screening at the Ishbilia Cinema was Abdul-Hadi Mohammed, 29. He didn’t want anyone to see him coming in, he said, because it was embarrassing.
NIQASH’s reporter follows him in. The cinema’s lobby is in a bad way and the corridor leading to the cinema hall is full of old movie posters. At the end of it, there’s a young man checking tickets and those holding them as assiduously as if he was a policeman.
Inside, the hall is actually almost empty. There are only about 35 people here. And then in the middle of a western movie, that film was suddenly switched off and replaced by a pornographic film. Most of the seats here have lost their covers and look as naked as the protagonists in the porno.
Sitting there, watching the movie, brings to mind a passage written by the Columbian novelist Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, in which he wrote about how his friend’s room smelled like bitter almonds because he masturbated so often.
Mohammed said he wondered what was under his feet besides the other rubbish: was that stain some dried semen perhaps? At intermission all the other audience members seemed to be trying to hide themselves. And Mohammed couldn’t stand it any longer.
He left. “I had been told that cinemas in Mosul had changed and had become these dirty places,” he said. “But I never believed it until now. I won’t go back,” he promised. Other audience members also left eventually, most of them silently.
But one teenager leaving via the back door -emergency exit turned around and whispered: “many people would criticise us for watching movies. But,” he hissed, “they also watch them, they just do it at home. Such hypocrites!”