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Book Review: The Forbidden Reel


Book Review The Forbidden Reel By Jonathan Saruk Reviewed by Tom Leininger Going to the movies is a chance to escape reality for a few hours. Under the cloak of darkness the audience is transported away from the stress and strain of their daily lives. Jonathan Saruk's book, The Forbidden Reel, presents us with a look inside the movie theaters in Kabul, Afghanistan, places that provide a needed escape from the reality of war ravaged daily lives.

The Forbidden ReelBy Jonathan Saruk.
 Daylight Books, 2014.
 
The Forbidden Reel
Reviewed by Tom Leininger

The Forbidden Reel
Photographs by Jonathan Saruk
Daylight Books, 2014. 124 pp., 50 color illustrations, 12x11". 


Going to the movies is a chance to escape reality for a few hours. Under the cloak of darkness the audience is transported away from the stress and strain of their daily lives. Jonathan Saruk's book, The Forbidden Reel, presents us with a look inside the movie theaters in Kabul, Afghanistan, places that provide a needed escape from the reality of war ravaged daily lives.

Saruk, a photojournalist who covered Afghanistan starting in 2008, discovered the theaters while working on daily life stories in Kabul. The old theaters are worn and rough around the edges and remind me of the old single screen movie theaters I went to in my youth. These are not the modern stadium seat theaters we in the west have grown to expect.

The Forbidden ReelBy Jonathan Saruk. Daylight Books, 2014.

The Forbidden ReelBy Jonathan Saruk. Daylight Books, 2014.

The book offers a look into an aspect of Afghan culture that is unexpected. Saruk shows us the theaters, the moviegoers, and the aging projection rooms. We also see men selling beverages and snacks while walking through the theater at intermission. Paint is peeling, posters are taped to the walls, and the screens and movie prints are not the cleanest. No matter, the audience is engaged by the action or the scantily clad women being projected. Young men are seen dancing along with a palpable sense of joy. While the communal experience of seeing a movie is universal, the places where they are experienced are not always the same.

The Forbidden ReelBy Jonathan Saruk. Daylight Books, 2014.

The book's narrative structure that weaves in and out of the theaters, into the projection booths, and places us into the audience makes for an excellent reading experience. Saruk is a talented storyteller who produces images that are subtle and images that are dynamic, images that show us what it feels like being in these old smoky theaters. These pictures go beyond the declarative statements of daily journalism. A lyrical essay is what is being told; one that says no matter what, an escape from daily life is needed.

The Forbidden ReelBy Jonathan Saruk. Daylight Books, 2014.
The Forbidden ReelBy Jonathan Saruk. Daylight Books, 2014.

This book could be defined as reportage, and the language of photojournalism serves it well. The basic questions of what these places are like, who goes there, and who runs them are answered, but in answering these questions we are left with some sense of mystery. Annick Shen introduces how the book came about and gives a bit of background on Saruk. Javed Rezayee, an Afghan raised in Kabul, talks about his specific memories of some of these places. Afghan culture does not allow women in the theaters and Rezayee also touches on the reality of women not being allowed to attend on their own. A few women are pictured on the street around the theaters covered in full burkas, but the only women inside the theaters are projected on the screen or in pictures pasted by the concession stand. Rezayee adds that a new theater is changing that. Afghanistan is a difficult country to understand from afar. These two voices and the captions at the end of the book fill out the back story. All of this is presented in a direct way giving the viewer room to come to their own conclusions.

Jonathan Saruk’s decision to photograph smaller daily life stories in Afghanistan was a smart one. Pictures of men at the movies tells little of the American involvement in Afghanistan at the time, but tells a smaller more universal story about the human condition, and that is the real strength of this book.—TOM LEININGER


TOM LEININGER is a photographer and educator based in North Texas. More of his work can be found on his website.

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