BAGHDAD, Iraq - By the second movie in the triple feature at Al Najoom theater, the projector had to cut through a thick cloud from the chain-smoking men killing an afternoon watching an obscure American action film.
The floors were sticky from spilled soda and candy, the subtitles were in Chinese, and the Showdown in Little Tokyo picture trailed the sound by at least three seconds.
For admission costing the equivalent of about 65 cents, the moviegoers, if they could bear it, could sit through all three films - Dolph Lundgren's Showdown in Little Tokyo, Demi Moore's Striptease and an Egyptian romance film.
Most didn't seem to expect much beyond some bloody fight scenes and a little titillation.
During the dialogue in Little Tokyo, the men (women don't go to the theater) chattered among themselves and paid little attention to the film.
But when the movie's leading actress, Tia Carrere, asks Lundgren to avert his eyes so she can disrobe in front of him while retaining her modesty, the theater instantly went silent and every man fixed his eyes on the screen. Then there was a collective and appreciative gasp.
During Saddam Hussein's rule, showing films with nudity was forbidden.
Each movie in the country's theaters first had to be screened by the Information Ministry to ensure nothing indecent was shown. For a princely sum, an Information Ministry inspector might let the briefest nude scene pass through, but finding an officer on the take was a rarity, said Al Najoom manager Abdullah Mohammad.
"We weren't allowed to show anything," he said.
In Iraq's emerging democracy, however, movie-theater operators are finding that sex sells and, for the time being, no one is going to stop them from hawking it.
Since the ouster of Saddam, satellite dishes have become household items, and the selection of pirated DVDs in some Baghdad markets rivals what you could find in the United States.
But movie theaters, which have had a hard time getting popular American movies since the United Nations sanctions against Iraq in 1990, have fallen into a wasteland.
"I don't get many new movies, so it is difficult to keep business up," Mohammad said. "I change the movies I have every two weeks. I have found the movies with the beautiful actresses have been most popular."
At Al Najoom, which translates as "the stars," and other theaters in Baghdad, owners take still photos of a movie's sex scenes and post the photos as advertisement in their foyers. The photomontages contain no description of plots and in some cases no movie title is posted.
Just in case children or women might come through the foyer, Mohammad has drawn bikini tops over bare breasts with a felt-tip pen.
"This is not porno," said Mohammad, 43. "It is OK to show the nudity as long as it is in a romantic situation and not porno. It would not be acceptable to show the pornography."
Meanwhile, in recent months, theater operators have stopped posting huge billboards of Hollywood starlets that used to let passersby know what was playing. A prevailing rumor in Baghdad is that they stopped out of fear or pressure from Shiite clerics.
Mohammad, however, said he removed the starlet billboards for the Islamic holy month of Moharramand because he can no longer afford new billboards.
"God willing, I will put the posters back soon," Mohammad said.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.