for National Geographic News
When the Taliban regime swept into power in Afghanistan in 1996, its notorious religious police knocked down the doors of the country's film libraries, confiscated all of the movies, and burned them on giant bonfires.
In an instant, more than 40 years of culture went up in a plume of smoke.
Or so it seemed.
Anticipating the Taliban's cultural crusade, custodians of the Afghan film archive had taken the precaution of hiding all the negatives behind false doors and in secret compartments. In the end, not a single work was lost.
Now, two years after the Taliban's abrupt removal from power, the French national film archive, INA, is leading a project to re-create the positives of the films in an effort to restore Afghanistan's cultural memory.
The co-sponsored project is the first in a new National Geographic Society initiativethe Visual Memory Projectwhich aims to recover and preserve the visual record of creatures and traditions around the world that have no other legacy but film.
Thousands of feet of world history and national memory may be disappearing every day, as heat, cold, and lack of funding destroy old negatives and priceless reels of film.
"There are hot spots all over the world where species and cultures are disappearing," said Mark Bauman, who is leading the project for the National Geographic Society. "The last legacy of some of these animals, languages, and traditions is often a piece of celluloid that's decaying somewhere."
The Afghan collection of film rarities ranges from a 1960s-documentary on the country's then-thriving Buddhist community to extensive, never-before-seen war footage from the mujahidin's ascent to power in 1992.
"Massoud, the main military force under the [former] government, had one of his men trained as a cameraman," said Bauman. "Over the years he shot on everything from hi-8 to mini-DV, and it's some of the most powerful war footage in existence."
Several countries have expressed an interest in having their film collections restored. The Chinese government has invited conservationists to open China's many film archives. Bauman says he's looking to move on to countries in southeast Asia, such as Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
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