How 11 Afghans Risked Their Lives to Save the Movies

Khwaja Ahmadshah said he nailed a blackboard to the door, then painted it and covered it with old posters. It was invisible.

When the Taliban minister of information came, Ahmadshah says he told him, "if I find one reel hidden in this building, I must kill you."

Ahmadshah was a lab technician with Afghan Film, an institute that stored the country's major film and TV archive. When the Taliban seized power in 1996, most of the institute's 120 employees fled.

The new regime had decreed movies a heresy and went through the country ravaging cinemas, destroying reels, confiscating video players and hanging televisions from telephone poles.

Despite Afghan Film being a target, Ahmadshah and 10 colleagues refused to leave.

While people around the country were punished for keeping tapes and cinemas were closing down or turned into tea shops or restaurants, there was one more thing to do and the 11 Afghan Film employees were ready to risk their lives to accomplish it.

Abdul Latif Ahmadi, a former diplomat and film director who now heads up Afghan Film, told ABC News: "When the Taliban came, they decided to turn our institute into a war museum and decreed they would burn all the reels. The employees who remained hid the Afghan movies in a lab on the second floor of the building. There were no windows and the electricity had been cut off. It was so dark it was impossible to see."

Behind the lab door, disguised with the blackboard and posters, no fewer than 6,000 reels, including 60 documentaries and 40 feature films, were kept hidden. When the Taliban came, the people at Afghan Film showed them only the foreign films that were stored on the first floor.

"They knew," Ahmadi said, "that if the Taliban discovered the lab all of them would have been killed."

During those years Ahmadi worked abroad as a diplomat, leaving behind the film he'd made about drug trafficking in Afghanistan. He despaired of ever finding his film again, but when he returned to the capital, Kabul, his film was still there, in the lab where it lay hidden for years.

In February and this month, a much wider audience is finally getting a chance to see what Afghan filmmakers are capable of with the opening of Afghan Reel, a celebration of Afghan film in Edinburgh, Scotland.

One of the main events is the premiere of "Akhter the Joker," another film made by Ahmadi and saved by the group of 11, $50-a-month employees who risked their lives under the Taliban in order to preserve their artistic heritage.

Dan Gorman, organizer of the festival, told ABC News, "The festival provides an understanding of Afghanistan that goes beyond the war. When we went there we were surprised by the resilience of the art. Despite all the troubles, people were still playing music and making films."

The bulk of the program dates from after the fall of the Taliban, in 2001, including Golden Globe-winning "Osama" by Afghan director Siddiq Barmak and "Kandahar" by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a film President Bush considered required viewing for anyone needing a quick insight into the region.

According to Ahmadi, young directors in Afghanistan are doing very well: "They make good films with very low budgets. There is no money so a film can be produced with a maximum of only $20,000 U.S. dollars. And yet each year between 30 and 40 features films are being produced, many by women."

"Afghanistan," he said, "is getting better."