By Khalid al-Ansary
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Entrepreneur Zaid Fadhel has spent $800,000 to realize a dream of reviving cinemas in Iraq after decades of dictatorship that shut movie houses and fear of bombings that kept people at home.
The opening of Fadhel's mini-cinema this week in a Baghdad social club marked the start of an ambitious plan to build 30 theatres in the capital in four years, giving Iraqis a chance to again see the first-run movies the rest of the world watches.
For Iraqis, access to the latest films, like "Drive Angry," "The Mechanic" or "Source Code," will reconnect them with a global film culture from which they were cut off during Saddam Hussein's 24-year dictatorship and the bloody chaos that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled him.
"Opening a cinema is a determination to live. It is as important as bread," actor-director Azeez Khayyoun said at the opening of "Iraqi Cinema" in Baghdad's Hunting Club Monday.
Iraq once had 82 cinemas, 64 of them located in the teeming capital, home to about 7 million of Iraq's 30 million people.
One by one, they closed during the Saddam era, when the government controlled the selection and importation of films, until only five remained at the time of the invasion.
The insurgency that followed and killed tens of thousands of people made Iraqis afraid of being in public places and crowds. They chose the relative safety of home where they many have access to hundreds of satellite channels.
But while militants still commit dozens of bombings and other attacks each month, overall violence has eased in recent years and people are making use of public places again.
"Iraqis are thirsty to see cinemas back again. By this work, I am trying to bring back the culture of cinema to Iraqis," Fadhel said.
His two small cinemas in the Hunting Club, each seating about 75 people, boast luxurious red seats imported from Spain, sophisticated sound and light systems and projectors from Italy and Germany. Soon it will have digital 3-D projectors.
The theatres sit next to clothing shops, restaurants and a children's playground.
"The opening of this cinema has brought back memories of the first time my father took me to a cinema in the 1980s. It has the same taste," said Zainab al-Qassab, a government worker who attended the Hunting Club opening.
Iraqis once enjoyed Bollywood movies and Hollywood romances and favored international stars like Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren. But Saddam's strict control over imports eventually restricted their choices.
Iraqi intellectuals say they will tolerate none of the same kinds of limitations from the country's new, democratically elected government. "I raise my hand in protest before any censorship, as this would mean building iron gates before creativity," said Khayyoun, the actor-director.
Fadhel soon will start work on two more cinemas in Baghdad's other big social club, the Alwiya in central Baghdad, and hopes to build others in shopping malls. He would like to become an exclusive distributor of the latest movies for big producers like Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox and others.
He plans to screen films like "Toy Story 3" to lure families and children, an under-served market for decades.
"It is illogical that since 1991 we have had no cinemas for children. The opening of a cinema is like the opening of a university or college to me," said Shafeeq al-Mehdi, head of the government's cinema and theater directorate.
There are 2.5 million children in Baghdad alone, he said.
The government plans to construct three cinemas inside the National Theater, Mehdi added. One will be a 40-seat hall for children with a 3-D projector.
While security has markedly improved, the Iraqi capital is still a fortress in many ways. Blast walls and security checkpoints abound, crimping residents' freedom to move around, and there are limited options for entertainment.
The National Museum reopened in 2009. A troupe of stand-up comedians began performing in October of that year in the National Theater. Restaurants and ice cream shops are opening.
But even while celebrating the inauguration of a new movie theater, Deputy Culture Minister Jaber al-Jaberi cautioned that militants are still at work.
"There are engineers, at this moment, with dark minds plotting to fill Baghdad with car bombs and explosive vests to kill the men, women, and children of Iraq," he said.
(Editing by Jim Loney and Mark Heinrich)