Context & Culture

Guest Blog: Where Fiction and Reality Meet: A Decade of Afghan Cinema


‘A country which used to produce a revolution as often as a film’, the International Film Guide said about Afghanistan in 1983, pointing to the dearth of film-making in the country. Post-Taleban, this has changed. The past decade, there has been an explosion in Afghan film making, with the production of mostly independently produced, short films and with sometimes remarkable results. Martin Gerner, himself a journalist and film-maker, who has curated Afghan films for international festivals, scrutinises the search of identity of contemporary Afghan filmmakers and their often ambiguous relationship towards the foreign presence. He finds a film making scene torn between its own doubts and the conditions created by donors.

Between the mid-1940s to the 1980s, Afghan Films, the national authority for filmmaking in Afghanistan and a number of private companies produced only around seventy films. The early productions were epic movies inspired by traditional poetry. Film production rose during the Soviet era, as young Afghans received scholarships to study the filmmaking school of Sergei Eisenstein and at universities in Eastern European countries. Then-students like Sidiq Barmak, Wahed Nazari and others did not necessarily need to be fervent supporters of the communist ideology to get a chance to make a profession out of their sympathy for moving pictures. It was only during the 1990s, that moving pictures and film was considered contrary to Islam by the Afghan regimes. 2001, logically then again, was in some (but not all) respects a start from scratch – a ‘zero hour’ for Afghan film.

The last ten years have seen a considerable amount of works produced, with dozens of films per year lately and a trend towards even higher numbers due to modern digital technologies. Not surprisingly, professional standards vary a great deal, but a growing number of film-makers have started to compete at the international level, eager to show that an ‘Afghan cinema’ exists.*

The search for an Afghan (film) identity starts in the most logic place: In the bazaar where Afghans and ex-pats living in Kabul find their foreign film DVDs. ‘Most of the people in the West think about Afghanistan as a country where people kill each other in the name of Islam,’ says Ali Husseini, who is part of a collective of young Kabul filmmakers, explaining how foreign films can motivate the indigenous film-maker. ‘You just need to watch any of the Hollywood movies. We as Afghans are usually portrayed as terrorists with long beards in them. But we come from the middle of this society, and we want to show that we as well have a global perspective on things, just like in Germany or in the United States. What we want to show are stories where we speak about our lives, stories about earning money and trying to make a living, with parents raising their children and trying to give them a better future.’

Most films produced post 2001 deal with Afghan society, leaving the foreigners out. Family conflicts are shown and conflicts of generations, abuse of women’s rights and the oppressive structures of warlordism. The war is always present in its devastating effect on people’s living conditions and psyches.

Roya Sadat fiction film ‘Three dots’ (2004) is an early revealing example of this. The local Khan forces the wife of three fatherless children into a marriage against her will. The heroine of the film is forced to trade opium to the Iranian border and ends up in jail, her strength and optimism breached by a traditional male dominated society. On the documentary side, Alka Sadat’s ‘Half value life’ (2008) portrays Maria Bashir, the only female state prosecutor in Afghanistan. A film document with a zeal for detail and a surprising edit. The two directors are sisters and have been directing and shooting for major Afghan TV stations and international productions. They are an example of what is currently possible in the new Afghan reality.

‘Filmmakers are important in a country like Afghanistan because they can give the country an identity. A lot of people are in search of an identity currently. We as independent filmmakers can contribute to this’, says Hassan Fazeli, another of the young directors with a penchant for experimental editing, challenging the dominating all too classical narrative.

In fact, films from a truly Afghan perspective seem more necessary than ever before. This is not just for the sake of Afghanistan’s cultural identity, but also because they might free westerners from some rather strange perceptions of the country. But until now, the majority of documentaries and fiction films about Afghanistan shown on western TVs or in international film festivals remain foreign made. With only a few exceptions, most describe the Western view of Afghan reality and all too often this means getting the film-maker’s own national troops into the picture and leaving Afghans out.

Films like ‘Armadillo’, which portrays two Danish soldiers in Helmand, or ‘Restrepo’, famous for capturing the intensity of the fight of a group of US soldiers in Kunar’s Korengal valley, have received many international awards. Both films are shot as part of an ‘embed’ and consequently exclusively show only one side of the conflict. We learn little or nothing about the reality of the lives of Afghans in these acclaimed works. On the contrary: the Afghan reality remains an enigmatic void, potentially threatening and undifferentiated.** So, with security worsening and the obvious limitations for foreign filmmakers to approach Afghan daily life especially in far out provinces, it seems Afghan filmmakers are in a better position to more authentically convey stories of their countrymen.

But despite all the successes of the post-Taleban era, the fairy tale of Afghan cinema may have reached its limits. ‘It has gotten more difficult to film in the past months’, a lecturer from the Kabul Faculty of Fine Arts said. ‘It has also gotten more difficult to travel and find appropriate shooting locations.’ Bamiyan, for example, a much liked location for fiction and non-fiction film-makers, is not as easily accessible anymore as it used to be after the recent attacks on the road there through the Ghorband Valley. The same goes for other spots as well.

More important for documentary making, according to some film-makers is that witnesses are more reluctant to have themselves filmed. Film making is very different from the work of a print or radio journalist in that it needs greater efforts to build up trust before any shooting can take place.

As for the relationship between Afghan film-makers and foreigners, it is complex and contradictory, affected not only by the international military presence in Afghanistan, but also by film-makers dependence on international funding. While there is constant talk around cups of tea about the influence of internationals on the life of Afghans, it is noticeable that most filmmakers hesitate when it comes to put their vision of things into pictures, be it about the international military, aid workers, diplomats or consultants.

Sidiq Barmak, a director who has profited from a scholarship in filmmaking in the former Soviet Union and the point of reference for modern Afghan cinema, is probably the author of the only internationally known critical work that deals with the foreign military presence in Afghanistan. His film, ‘Opium War’ very cleverly uses satire, black humour and some surrealism to speak about the current and previous wars. In the story, the family of a poor Afghan opium farmer, living in an old Soviet tank, not only has to sell his daughter in order to make a living, but is also faced with two stranded US soldiers, who have survived a plane crash. The soldiers are caught by the farmer’s family and forced to work on his opium fields as domestics. They end up being freed when an army of Afghan election workers wearing black glasses appear on the horizon, followed by UN personal transporting big ballot boxes in order to impose ‘free and fair’ elections at any cost.***

Barmak’s film work is recognizable by his personal cinematographic handwriting, making him a rare case of an Afghan ‘cinema d’auteur’. After 2001 Barmak was for some time in charge of the state-run Afghan Film Authority before building up his own private film company. ‘Osama’, which is probably the only Afghan film known to a wider international public, and other of his works have made him a networker with international filmmakers and producers. He, unlike others, can afford to work independently of foreign donors or Afghan TV budgets.

This is not so for many of the film-makers among the younger generation. Acting in total artistic independence remains a wish for them. Former lecturer at the Faculty of Fine Arts and former editor-in-chief of ‘Honarmand’ (Artist), a film magazine run from early 2005 onwards without any foreign funding, Ali Karimi points to the mixed feelings of what he says a majority of filmmakers today still perceive the political and military situation. ‘Filmmakers belong to a group of Afghans who are very thankful towards the international soldiers. They feel they are able to make films because of NATO and ISAF, not despite them.’

He acknowledges that the attitude of gratefulness contrasts with his rather critical view of the foreign presence: ‘If I was to make a film about foreigners, I would chose a story about the personal life of a foreign soldier patrolling the streets of Kabul, like a robot, not smiling, with no way for us, the Afghans, to approach him, while asking myself: ‘What kind of people are they? Do they have a heart? What is human about them? All this while knowing that they also have a relationship with their families back home and live in their camps and wondering how they perceive us, the Afghans.’

As there is no system of Afghan state funding for film directors (unlike in neighbouring Iran), foreign donors with their budgets guarantee for a numeber of film productions (and more recently also festivals in Kabul). But in commissioning films for political or educational purposes, the same donors can also limit artistic freedom. In the past few years, some films sponsored by donors or by Afghan human rights bodies have for example stated clear parameters on what dialogue they want to see the actors in a film speak, thus downgrading the Afghan director and his team. The reason why the foreign presence has been rarely appraised in film, may lie exactly in this dominance, Afghan filmmakers argue. ‘These donors are not very interested in a critical view of how we would see them, one of them says. ‘Why should the foreigners fund something that is not in their benefit?’

Yet, there have been positive outcomes of the international funding as well. The Ateliers Varan for example, a French documentary filmmaking initiative active throughout the world and supported by the French and German cultural institutes in Kabul, has provided extensive training for a number of young film-makers, male and female, since its arrival in 2006. Some of the final edits of Ateliers Varan’s students’ films have made their way to foreign festivals and have been shown in the Kabul festivals. Other initiatives have been far less sustained. As far as higher education for film is concerned, Germany for example supports scholarships for scientific, technical or managerial subjects taught at university level, but has not provided scholarships for filmmakers so far. But all of these efforts do not add up to the long-time effort which would be needed and worth calling it a strategy.

It will be interesting to observe also if international production companies, who have made their way into the Afghan TV market in the past years, will find any on-going benefit from working in Afghanistan. For example, it was an Australian production company which helped produce ‘Eagle 4’ for Afghan Tolo TV, a series based on the successful US model called ‘24’financed largely by American Embassy “public diplomacy” money in an effort to raise the esteem in which Afghans hold their much-maligned police force. Not every viewer was happy: ‘The story was just not believable enough for ordinary Afghans,’ filmmaker I have interviewed say ‘Two male and two female special police forces who would successfully hunt down all the bad guys, while being trustworthy and morally pure. That is just too far from Afghan reality.’

Looking ahead, 2014, the date of withdrawal of international troops, is likely to have consequences. ‘We came back from exile in neighbouring countries,’ says Ali Husseini, ‘to see that because of the foreign military’s presence, Afghans do tolerate each other to some extent. But if the troops withdraw, I am expecting a political crisis and some kind of anarchy.’

Ten years after 9’11, conditions for Afghan authors remain restless. While young filmmakers mostly dream of a festival screenings abroad, it seems their working conditions beyond 2014 will be once more uncertain and subject to fundamental change.

* The term ‘film industry’ for Afghanistan is not systematically used in this article, given the low level of investment and international co-production as compared to neighbouring Iran and international standards.

** I have tried in my own documentary ‘Generation Kunduz’, that recently premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival, to bridge that gap and give a picture of the ‘war of the others’, meaning the local population as Afghans are often go silenced in western news reports.

*** Barmak got a special permission for ‘Opium War’ to grow a poppy field in Baghlan province. Some German officers of the local PRT, he recalls, would come to him, trying to explain how he had to approach his own fellow tribal elders and maliks in the villages in order to best reach out to the local population.

**** Germany for example supports scholarships for scientific, technical or managerial subjects taught at university level, but has not provided scholarships for filmmakers so far.

****Martin Gerner is the author and producer of the feature documentary ‘Generation Kunduz – The war of the Ohters’ that recently premiered at Montreal World Film Festival. He is a freelance correspondent for Afghanistan for the German Radio, German national print media (Der Tagesspiegel, TAZ), Deutsche Welle and has also trained Afghan journalists for different Media INGOs.

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