It turns out you CAN go to the movies in Islamabad. There are still no movie theaters here, but for ten days a “film gala” is running at the Pakistan National Council for the Arts. The PNCA is housed at a beautiful building right by the Parliament in downtown Islamabad, the film nights are free and include an extensive buffet of tea and fried things (samosas, egg rolls, fish fingers) before the show. I couldn’t pass it up.I went to the opening night of the festival with a group of friends. The movie was “Tin Cup,” telling you right away what kind of film festival this wasn’t (artsy, independent, serious) and what it was (sponsored in part by Pakistan’s new movie cable channel, “Filmax”). Even still, I thought “Tin Cup” was a strange choice. I happen to like the movie, and I know at least one person who considers it his absolute favorite, but a golf movie starring Kevin Costner from 1996 is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think “film festival in Pakistan.” Looking at the brochure, I realized the movie choices only got weirder. Girly teen flicks seemed to predominate, with “What A Girl Wants” and “A Walk to Remember,” but the festival redeemed itself by ending on a high note with “The Wedding Singer.”

On Night One, the crowd seemed excited about doing something a little different on a Thursday night in Islamabad (Hong Kong or New York, this isn’t), pleasantly stuffed with fried food, and ready to settle into the adventures of Roy McElroy and his leggy love interest. Things hit a small snag when the disc turned out to be defective and the host had to entertain us for 45 minutes with impressions in Urdu of famous Pakistanis while his cohort ran out to Radio City to buy a new disc. None of this was surprising in the least, and all in all, I’d say the night was a success.

I hit up the film gala again a few days later for the most respectable movie of the lineup: last Tuesday’s “Casablanca.” Sandwiched between Sunday’s pick “Breaking Up” (I thought this was a typo for the Jennifer Anistan/Vince Vaughan flick but I was wrong) and Wednesday’s tearjerker “City of Angels,” the Bogart-Bergman classic seemed a bit out of place but welcome. The movie was garishly colorized (horrifying to purists and a little unsettling even to me) and the sound pretty echo-ey, but I had a good time at the movie and eating chocolate waffle ice cream cones afterwards.

Even more entertaining than either of these movies themselves was my first exposure to Pakistani censorship. The film gala was sponsored in part by the government, an announcement that meant nothing to me until partway through “Casablanca,” when Rick and Ilsa are rapturously falling in love in Paris, clutching each other under the Eiffel Tower as their faces draw close in a passionate…pixellated murk. Censored! Fifteen minutes later, Victor Lazlo moves in to plant a decorous kiss on his wife’s forehead…pixellated! Even this tepid marital peck was deemed too racy for the suggestible masses, even though those masses were decked out in jeans, texting on glowing cell phones all through the movie, and in every other way behaving exactly as moviegoers do all over the world. Sometimes I forget I am living in a conservative Muslim country.

It’s hard to have any complaints though, when the movies are free, the tea is pink (special Kashmiri style), and the samosas plentiful. Sign me up for next year!

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