Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

The first Human Rights Film Festival in Afghanistan; a collection of inhuman true stories

Naheed Esar Malikzay 9 min

‘There are about 33 human rights film festivals around the world, however, none of them taking place in the very Middle Eastern or Central Asian Countries which are gravely affected by human right violations’, the director of AHRF (Autumn Human Rights Film Festival) Malek Shafi’i told reporters. For the first time, from 1-7 of October, a human rights film festival was held in Afghanistan, gaining thus the distinction of being the first in a Middle Eastern or Central Asian country. AAN’s Naheed Esar Malikzay watched some of the Afghan films screened in the festival and talked to some of the directors and actors.

A 10 year-old boy wants a horse instead of the child-bride he has been given by his father in the fictional movie, ‘I want a Horse not Wife’… A woman tells how she set fire to herself to try to escape a forced marriage; battered and scarred, she eventually finds love with the same man, in the documentary, ‘Before I was Good’.

These were just two of the 32 Afghan films and 18 foreign films which were selected and screened in Kabul and Mazar. They were chosen from 200 films submitted to the festival’s organisers.* The themes of the films touched on discrimination, injustice and violence. Documentaries and fictional films told the stories of lives affected by war, the hardships of immigration, drug addiction and the violence done to women by unwanted traditions. But what linked the festival’s movies was not an explicit approach to human rights, but rather the high degree of humanity each of them carried, in the acting and the ways the directors chose to tell their stories.

Just holding such a film festival here was important: ‘Afghanistan has suffered from war, impunity and discrimination’ said James Rodehaver, the deputy director of the Human Rights Unit at the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan. The documentaries, he said, ‘are meant to inform, spark debate, provoke activism, and inspire people for humanity.’

The value of such an initiative is more than symbolic. Most of the participants and filmmakers AAN interviewed said that film was one of few ways to fight the inhumanity and violence so widespread in Afghanistan. One said that, ‘seeing the story of a victim’s sufferings and the abuses committed against her or him in a movie unconsciously effects our souls very deeply and prevents us from committing such crimes.’ The same point was repeatedly made by other film festival participants and directors, including Sidiq Barmak, the director of ‘Osama’, ‘Approximately 74% of Afghans are illiterate. Therefore the only way to raise awareness is the media, especially movies.’

Much talk has been heard in the last year about the mineral treasures hidden in the Afghan soil, and time will tell how much of it has been idle talk. For the moment, we can at least acknowledge the existence of other buried riches – damn good stories – hidden, not in the soil, but rather in the soul of the Afghan people. And while this appears to be an easily mineable deposit compared with the logistic difficulties of getting copper or coal or gold out of the earth, it seems much more could and must be done to encourage cinema in Afghanistan.

Making movies is not easy here as one film (‘We Stars’, directed by Aqila Rezai, one of Afghanistan’s most well-known female actors) showed.  It told the stories of the lives of five women actors, only one of whom is supported by her family in her work. The others faced difficulties and obstacles – from their families, people at large and from the authorities (to be specific here, the police).

There was opposition from unexpected quarters, as well. According to an Hasht-e Sobh article, on Tuesday 4 October, university students in Mazar-e Sharif protested against the film festival and shouted slogans ‘against human rights and the US troops’ presence in Afghanistan’ during the projection of the film ‘Paper Boats’. A scene from  this movie portrays a pregnant woman trying to find shelter in a mosque. The mullah of the mosque asks her for a sexual relationship. Witnesses reported that, ‘that part of the film created anger among the participants, which eventually resulted in them protesting against the festival program and asking the government to stop the film festival on the whole.’ The newspaper article reported that rumours held the Iranian government for stirring up protest.

Those rumours came closer to truth when, on the following day, the Iranian embassy repeatedly requested the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, to stop screening  the film ‘Neighbour’. The movie deals with the tragedy of the Afghan refugee community in Iran. (click here for the full Dariarticle)

Against these odds, the film festival went ahead according to its original schedule. Hopefully, the relevance of cinema both as an art, as an industry, and as a way of healing the country will in turn be recognized and enhanced, even by those who talk eagerly of the perils of cultural invasion in form of foreign movies and TV serials, but do not encourage or even allow Afghans to shape and share their beautiful stories according to their own experience and cultural point of view.

Here is the synopsis of some of the other Afghan films presented in the festival:

The fictional story of a farmer caught in the dilemma of whether to barter or not the opium he swore never to touch against his son’s happiness, by enabling him to marry his beloved. (The Sign of Hand)

The fictional story of a father searching for his son who is a student at a religious school in Kabul, and has gone missing during the conflict (An Apple in Paradise)

The true struggle of a young woman trying to get her driving license in Mazar-e Sharif in the face of male incredulity and opposition. (Look Who’s Driving)

A teenager from Bamiyan traces back the story of his own survival ten years after his family fled their native valley to avoid Taleban massacres. (Light in the Cave, an autobiographical film)

Kate Clark adds:

Going to the cinema in Kabul was a wholly unexpected pleasure.  The famous Park Cinema, in Shahr-e Now is usually barred to women**, but for the film festival the doors were open to me.  It’s the sort of lovely, old-fashioned cinema familiar to me from childhood, before most cinemas in Britain went multi-plex.  Park Cinema has a big screen and ranked wooden seating and when the electricity supply came on was showing a film – I want a Horse not a Wife, directed by Humayun Paiz – that I would have been happy to see anywhere in the world.

It was funny and serious, a satire on the vagaries of foreigners, film-making and fathers with a quite gripping plot and some wonderful acting, particularly from the sharp-voiced boy protagonist. I felt like a normal person in Kabul, going to the movies as I might do in Cairo, Damascus (before the troubles) or London.

* The Autumn Human Rights Film Festival (AHRFF) is an international film festival focusing on the subject of human rights. It was held for the first time in two locations in Kabul and one in Mazar-e Sharif during the first week of October 2011. It aims to encourage film makers who use their cameras to document struggles against discrimination, injustice and violence. For more information see the website http://www.ahrfestival.org/

** Indeed many ‘good families’ also do not like their sons going to the cinema because of the vice they might watch – although that should hardly be a concern now that all manner of ‘filth’ is available online and on satellite television channels.

‘There are about 33 human rights film festivals around the world, however, none of them taking place in the very Middle Eastern or Central Asian Countries which are gravely affected by human right violations’, the director of AHRF (Autumn Human Rights Film Festival) Malek Shafi’i told reporters. For the first time, from 1-7 of October, a human rights film festival was held in Afghanistan, gaining thus the distinction of being the first in a Middle Eastern or Central Asian country. AAN’s Naheed Esar Malikzay watched some of the Afghan films screened in the festival and talked to some of the directors and actors.

A 10 year-old boy wants a horse instead of the child-bride he has been given by his father in the fictional movie, ‘I want a Horse not Wife’… A woman tells how she set fire to herself to try to escape a forced marriage; battered and scarred, she eventually finds love with the same man, in the documentary, ‘Before I was Good’.

These were just two of the 32 Afghan films and 18 foreign films which were selected and screened in Kabul and Mazar. They were chosen from 200 films submitted to the festival’s organisers.* The themes of the films touched on discrimination, injustice and violence. Documentaries and fictional films told the stories of lives affected by war, the hardships of immigration, drug addiction and the violence done to women by unwanted traditions. But what linked the festival’s movies was not an explicit approach to human rights, but rather the high degree of humanity each of them carried, in the acting and the ways the directors chose to tell their stories.

Just holding such a film festival here was important: ‘Afghanistan has suffered from war, impunity and discrimination’ said James Rodehaver, the deputy director of the Human Rights Unit at the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan. The documentaries, he said, ‘are meant to inform, spark debate, provoke activism, and inspire people for humanity.’

The value of such an initiative is more than symbolic. Most of the participants and filmmakers AAN interviewed said that film was one of few ways to fight the inhumanity and violence so widespread in Afghanistan. One said that, ‘seeing the story of a victim’s sufferings and the abuses committed against her or him in a movie unconsciously effects our souls very deeply and prevents us from committing such crimes.’ The same point was repeatedly made by other film festival participants and directors, including Sidiq Barmak, the director of ‘Osama’, ‘Approximately 74% of Afghans are illiterate. Therefore the only way to raise awareness is the media, especially movies.’

Much talk has been heard in the last year about the mineral treasures hidden in the Afghan soil, and time will tell how much of it has been idle talk. For the moment, we can at least acknowledge the existence of other buried riches – damn good stories – hidden, not in the soil, but rather in the soul of the Afghan people. And while this appears to be an easily mineable deposit compared with the logistic difficulties of getting copper or coal or gold out of the earth, it seems much more could and must be done to encourage cinema in Afghanistan.

Making movies is not easy here as one film (‘We Stars’, directed by Aqila Rezai, one of Afghanistan’s most well-known female actors) showed.  It told the stories of the lives of five women actors, only one of whom is supported by her family in her work. The others faced difficulties and obstacles – from their families, people at large and from the authorities (to be specific here, the police).

There was opposition from unexpected quarters, as well. According to an Hasht-e Sobh article, on Tuesday 4 October, university students in Mazar-e Sharif protested against the film festival and shouted slogans ‘against human rights and the US troops’ presence in Afghanistan’ during the projection of the film ‘Paper Boats’. A scene from  this movie portrays a pregnant woman trying to find shelter in a mosque. The mullah of the mosque asks her for a sexual relationship. Witnesses reported that, ‘that part of the film created anger among the participants, which eventually resulted in them protesting against the festival program and asking the government to stop the film festival on the whole.’ The newspaper article reported that rumours held the Iranian government for stirring up protest.

Those rumours came closer to truth when, on the following day, the Iranian embassy repeatedly requested the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, to stop screening  the film ‘Neighbour’. The movie deals with the tragedy of the Afghan refugee community in Iran. (click here for the full Dariarticle)

Against these odds, the film festival went ahead according to its original schedule. Hopefully, the relevance of cinema both as an art, as an industry, and as a way of healing the country will in turn be recognized and enhanced, even by those who talk eagerly of the perils of cultural invasion in form of foreign movies and TV serials, but do not encourage or even allow Afghans to shape and share their beautiful stories according to their own experience and cultural point of view.

Here is the synopsis of some of the other Afghan films presented in the festival:

The fictional story of a farmer caught in the dilemma of whether to barter or not the opium he swore never to touch against his son’s happiness, by enabling him to marry his beloved. (The Sign of Hand)

The fictional story of a father searching for his son who is a student at a religious school in Kabul, and has gone missing during the conflict (An Apple in Paradise)

The true struggle of a young woman trying to get her driving license in Mazar-e Sharif in the face of male incredulity and opposition. (Look Who’s Driving)

A teenager from Bamiyan traces back the story of his own survival ten years after his family fled their native valley to avoid Taleban massacres. (Light in the Cave, an autobiographical film)

Kate Clark adds:

Going to the cinema in Kabul was a wholly unexpected pleasure.  The famous Park Cinema, in Shahr-e Now is usually barred to women**, but for the film festival the doors were open to me.  It’s the sort of lovely, old-fashioned cinema familiar to me from childhood, before most cinemas in Britain went multi-plex.  Park Cinema has a big screen and ranked wooden seating and when the electricity supply came on was showing a film – I want a Horse not a Wife, directed by Humayun Paiz – that I would have been happy to see anywhere in the world.

It was funny and serious, a satire on the vagaries of foreigners, film-making and fathers with a quite gripping plot and some wonderful acting, particularly from the sharp-voiced boy protagonist. I felt like a normal person in Kabul, going to the movies as I might do in Cairo, Damascus (before the troubles) or London.

* The Autumn Human Rights Film Festival (AHRFF) is an international film festival focusing on the subject of human rights. It was held for the first time in two locations in Kabul and one in Mazar-e Sharif during the first week of October 2011. It aims to encourage film makers who use their cameras to document struggles against discrimination, injustice and violence. For more information see the website http://www.ahrfestival.org/

** Indeed many ‘good families’ also do not like their sons going to the cinema because of the vice they might watch – although that should hardly be a concern now that all manner of ‘filth’ is available online and on satellite television channels.

Tags:

Human Rights

Authors:

Naheed Esar Malikzay

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