Editor’s note: Jeanno Gaussi presents the video and illustrated poem that make up Cinema Park as a pair of separate but associated elements, reflecting a desire for each to retain its unique formal properties.
In 1980, months after fleeing Kabul, Afghanistan, Jeanno Gaussi’s papers were officially signed at the German embassy in Karachi, Pakistan, marking the beginning of her long engagement with immigration. Her hair was cut short like a boy’s to make her appear older for the journey. Following a long flight, she arrived at her aunt’s house in Germany, a country unknown to her and far-removed from her parents and childhood. Shortly thereafter, in an effort to extricate the rest of her family from the refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan, Gaussi and her aunt moved to India. After many years there, and just within a year of Gaussi’s move back to Germany, the family was finally reunited in Berlin. Six years ago, Gaussi decided to travel back to Afghanistan. Since that decisive trip, she has continued to make regular visits. During each stay, she collects what she calls “memory fragments,” metaphoric tools that allow her to renew and reinforce the connections she once had to her homeland.
One such fragment is Cinema Park (2012), which was filmed inside the old movie theater of the title. Located near one of Gaussi’s earliest homes, the cinema was a favorite haunt for her mother, father, and aunt when they were young. An alluring place of escape and rendezvous for adolescents and adults alike, the theatre went through many changes over the years. The political upheavals of the 1980s, the war with Russia, and the civil wars of the 1990s not only left physical marks on its structure, but also completely did away with its program. It was closed by the Taliban in 1996, but reopened in 2001.
In her poignant video essay and accompanying poem, Gaussi records her visit to a significant site in her family’s history to reclaim and nurture both individual and collective memory. Stricken by nostalgia for a time she never experienced, and by a longing to live in a time before all the wars began, Gaussi struggles to access the distant and romanticized yet ever-present past within the Afghan collective conscious.
Mariam told me that it used to be a wonderful place.
. . . before you watched a movie you could stroll through the park of Shar-e-Nouw. Maybe you had a snack, Shor-Nachoot or ice cream.
So do you remember anything about the movie theater?
It was the only cinema in Kabul where men and women could sit next to each other.
They used to show European and American films too.
I saw a screening of Ben-Hur and Cleopatra.
I was in girls’ school, in 10th grade.
One afternoon, after school, we went to the Cinema Park.
We saw Brigitte Bardot kissing.
It was the first time we ever saw someone kissing.
He told me to come back in the late afternoon, when there was no screening.
Just a curtain leads to the movie theater.
The smell of dust all over. There is no solid ground.
Slowly my eyes adjust to the faint light.
I see numbers on the back of each wooden seat.
53, 54, 55, 56.
Who was sitting there last time?
Maybe someone I used to know a long time ago.
I want to capture everything, but the darkness that surrounds does not allow me to enter the space deep enough.
I try to imagine the rows packed with young people.
I wish I could go back to the past, before the war.
For one little moment.
For a fragment of this place at that time.
His leg is stiff, he walks carefully.
We enter his office, it is on the first floor of the building.
A spacious room with a big desk.
Now he runs the cinema.
1996 the Taliban closed the place. Since 2001 it is open again.
He tells me, there is no money to cover the costs for restoration.
To keep the dust on the ground they humidify the floor before each screening.
The least they can do.
He receives an urgent call and leaves the room.
In the cinema hall the movie has started. Again Bollywood, and they are dancing.
You can hear the dull echo of the hero’s foot bells as she follows the rhythm of the song.
It is very hot in the room, I am tired.
Outside, the bright sun.
Slowly cars are passing by. I buy an ice cream and from the other side of the street, I hear singing.
Namidaanam ba roi ki bekhandam. Namidaanam ba roi ki begiryaam . . .
Don’t know in whose face I smile. Don’t know for whom I cry . . .
It is the voice of Ahmad Zahir, they call him Bulbul-e-Afghanistan—the Afghan nightingale.
Leeza Ahmady is an independent curator and the director of Asian Contemporary Art Week, a joint initiative of Asia Society Museum, and Asian Contemporary Art Consortium (ACAC), New York.
Jeanno Gaussi, born in Kabul, is a Berlin-based mixed-media artist. She began her career by working with film and video, and her short films have been screened internationally at festivals including KaraFilm Festival, Pakistan, the International Filmfestival, Oberhausen, Germany, and Clermont-Ferrand Festival, France. Gaussi’s work was also included in Documenta 13. She explores cultural identity and memory through projects that are often site-responsive. The artist’s multi-cultural background has influenced her practice, yet her interests transcend national borders and categories.