Context & Culture

Herat Shorts Festival: The effects of armed conflict on children, seen through a cinematic lens


The multiple award winning director/writer/ cinemtographer. Credit: UNAMA

A female actress is speaking to the audience. On her left is the multiple award winning director/writer/cinematographer Mahbuba Barat – a 16-year-old high school student from Herat. She won the prizes for her short film Empty Space. On her right are two actress, including the winner of the best actress award. Photo credit: UNAMA

What do a 16-year high school student, a middle-aged aviation engineer, a 29-year old tenth-grader in night school and a 45-year old doctor in the Afghanistan National Border Police have in common? Not just that all of them come from the western region (Badghis or Herat), but all of them were also competitors in the first-ever Short Film Festival that focused on the effects of armed conflict on children. The festical was held on 3 September 2016 in Herat city. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica takes a closer look at the ten selected directors/screenwriters and their films, and dwells on this different representation of Afghanistan.

About the festival

The Herat Short Film Festival had called for submission on the topic “effects of armed conflict on Afghan children.” (1) The submission criteria were tough. The films, varying in length between two to ten minutes, had to make a visual or oral reference to at least one of the following themes: the effects of conflict on family life, attacks on schools or healthcare centres, the devastating impact of unexploded ordnances and improvised explosive devices on children, and recruitment of children by parties to the conflict. (2) Another condition of registration was that the films had to include at least one female as either director, narrator, scriptwriter or lead character. A total of 32 short films were submitted.

Around 220 film aficionados, critics and partners attended the one-day event, which featured mostly young filmmakers from Herat and Badghis provinces, including women and members of the disabled community. There were children in the audience too. “The festival gave me a chance to know there are many children who are suffering from hard work and who are affected by the armed conflict,” Said Kayhan, a primary school student who attend the film festival, told the UN.

Four judges – from UNAMA, civil society and the AIHRC – reviewed the films and selected the two winners. Certificates were also presented to the best director, actor and actress, child actor and actress, cinematographer and editor. Additionally, the festival audience voted for the Best Film in the People’s Choice Award category.

Ten selected films

UNAMA selected ten films to be released online (three of them are currently available here on UNAMA’s Facebook page). (3) The selected films represent a wide variety in stories, experiences and artistic expression, with some participants still being surprisingly young. The ten selected films prove that despite the conflict, creativity is still very much alive.

Empty space (Jay-e Khaliha) by Mahbuba Barat

The Best Film, Best Script and Best Director awards went to Mahbuba Barat, a 16-year-old high school student from Herat, for her film Empty Space. The film depicts the story of a young boy who desperately wants to continue his education, but is forced to quit school and become the sole breadwinner of the family, after his father’s conflict-related death. In this five-minute art piece, Barat skillfully uses scenes from Herat’s streets and closes the film with an effective and painful cinematic metaphor of a pen thrown in the dirt.

She said “I found the festival theme very strong and useful, and therefore I was motivated to make a short film about the effects of armed conflict on Afghan children.”

Barat has been involved in Cinema and Theater from a very young age, since 2010, and has several previous art works on her name. Her first production was a theater piece (Zang-e-Seda), which won the second prize at a Theater festival in 2013. After that, she directed Bud & Nabud (Was and Wasn’t), Mah-e-Maqbul-e Man (My Beautiful Moon), Madaram (My Mother), and Mohajeratha (Emigrations).

Empty space is available to watch online, here.

Duty bound (Wazifa Shenas) by Dr Naser

Duty Bound is about the heartache and dilemmas faced by a border police commander, when members of an armed group threaten to kill his son unless he releases their detained compatriots. The short film is multi-layered and includes a story of friendship between two boys: the commander’s son and his young friend. In a moving finale, the two boys, who both lose a leg to an IED placed in a school bag, share one pair of tennis shoes.

Dr Naser is a 45-year inhabitant of Herat province. He won the award for Second Best Director and Scriptwriter. His first experience in cinema was as an actor in Marz Bannan (Border Police). Dr Naser is a doctor in the Afghan National Border Police. The many incidents he witnessed that have affected and harmed children, motivated him to make this film.

Patrimony (Miras) by Amanullah Nusrat

Patrimony tells the story of two brothers; one who is studious and the other who prefers to play with guns. The father of this family sees the young son who is a fighter as the honorable one, compared to the one who is more of an intellectual. The films highlights the importance placed on patrimony and on fighting for the country and shows how this affects families and impacts children by forcing many of them to choose violence over education.

Amanullah Nusrat, the 45-year-old director of the film, is an aviation engineer by profession. He has been involved in film industry for a decade as a director, script writer, editor and cinematographer. He has directed ten long and short films in his career. He also competed in a SABA TV competition on environmental protection in 2015, where he won second prize.

Patrimony is available to watch online, here.

Our World (Jehan-e Ma) by Ahmad Wahid Omid

Our World depicts how conflict disrupts the normal lives of people, as it forces them to flee their country to look for safety and to restart a new life elsewhere.

The director of the film, Ahmad Wahid Omid, is 27 years old. He also directed Qafas (Cage). He has been involved in the film industry since 2009 and has produced up to ten short films, mainly about peace, environmental protection and migration. He has won several prizes, including first prize in the 60 second international film festival in Pakistan in 2015 for his earlier film Vision. The short film he showed in Herat, Our World also competed in the Vancouver Short Film Festival on Migration this year. The results will be public soon.

For Peace (Bara-ye Solh) by Mohammad Yaser Barakzai

For Peace is an animation film depicting the need for peace. It shows airplanes bombing the country. When after a while they suddenly notice two children with balloons, instead of dropping bombs, they end up dropping flowers. For Peace was produced last year and originally not intended for this festival as the producer thought the theme of his animation might not be strong enough, even though the animation work is good. He entered just before the deadline closed and was picked as one of the best ten films.

Mohammad Yaser Barakzai, 25-year old, is a 12th-grade graduate who is currently working as an IT technician. He has produced nearly 35 different animation films, since 2012. The themes of his animation vary from social issues, women issues to TV commercials, and peace.

Cage (Qafas) by Ahmad Wahid Omid

Cage is a two-minute silent film directed by 27-year old Ahmad Wahid Omid. It is a beautiful cinematic metaphor told through impressive shots of flying kits and the story of a young boy, disabled by polio, who daydreams. The film depicts the harm and suffering caused by the conflict in Afghanistan, showing how it affects access to health care – in this case through the interruption of polio vaccination programs.

Cage is available to watch online, here and here)

Hidden hell (Jahanam-e Penhan) by Abdul Karim Akbari

Hidden Hell depicts how difficult life is for Afghan families as a result of the ongoing conflict. In this case the family loses its main breadwinner, which in turn severely impacts the mother’s health. The film shows how the mother’s death leaves the child with no support from either the government or other community members.

Abdul Karim Akbari, the scriptwriter of Hidden Hell, is 29-year old night school tenth-grader. He has been involved in film making for over a decade and has competed in two other festivals, one by the Lincoln center in Herat and the other by a local NGO on peace. Akbari has acted in several short and feature films and has directed movies before.

Hero of Life (Qahraman-e Zendegi) by Omid Haqju

Hero of Life shows how difficult life is in times of conflict, especially for disabled people.

Omid Haqju is a 22-year old journalism student. He has been involved in Cinema since 2014. He has taken part in several films as an actor. Hero of Life is his first artwork as a director and screenwriter. Like many other Afghan, Haqju himself was affected by the armed conflict, which motivated him to make a film showing its severe impact on Afghan children.

Headlines (Sarkhat-e Khabarha) by Sohail Fakuri

Headlines depicts the everyday life in Afghanistan, where people, including children, are continuously exposed to news about the conflict: insurgency attacks, the fall of a districts, suicide bombings. They have no option but to continue their lives and face the challenges. The film shows the wish of all to see peace and portrays the continued existence of the positive sides of life, such as smiling children.

Sohail Fakuri, a 13-year old sixth-grader, directed the movie. He has had roles in more than ten long and feature films. He also has skills in film editing.

New Generation (Nasl-e Naw) by Behzad Askarzada

The short film New Generation depicts the fact that the conflict is ominous and that the new generation needs to be aware of its effects and consequences. This generation is, the film argues, more aware of the severity of the conflict than the generations before them and know that they need to work harder to overcome the challenges so they can have a future free of conflict.

A 38-year old, Behzad Askarzada, the author and the director of the film has been involved in the local film industry for the last 15 years. He has directed many feature and short films, including TV commercials about peace, effects of drugs, human rights, and disarmament, and has long-standing experience with theatrical performances.

Different representation

The interesting thing about the festival was that it brought together people of different ages, professions and preferences to creatively express themselves with regard to an issue that affects them all, either directly or indirectly. In the current turbulent situation, the collection of stories provide a mosaic of experiences on how the armed conflict continues to affect, not only on children, but society as a whole.

As UNAMA noted in its press release:

The festival provided an important opportunity for Afghans from all walks of life to exercise their cultural rights with courage and innovation. Many of the films reflected personal experiences or told the story of those closest to the writer. The films provided a creative and unique collective voice to children facing conflict across the country. Conducted under volatile conditions in Afghanistan, this Festival also offered an important avenue to inspire civil society, and particularly youth, to advocate and address human rights through a media platform.

It is remarkable to see and listen to these stories told by ordinary people in a truly artistic language. In particular, a scene from Patrimony comes to mind. The father is lecturing his studious son, admonishing him to be more like his weapon-loving brother. He tells his boy, who is about ten-years old: “This weapon is our patrimony. This [was handed] from my grandfather to my father, and from my father to me. And after me to my son. Today I am proud of my son. The weapons will never leave Afghanistan.” A moment later, in a pathos-filled closing, the weapon-loving son kills his intellectual brother by accident, while cleaning the kalashnikov.

A documentary is currently being produced to highlight the journey of the filmmakers, the production process and their personal experience in participating in the festival itself.

 

(1) The film festival was jointly organised by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), with support from Afghanistan’s Department of Information and Culture, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), civil society and the local media and arts community in the Herat city.

(2) The armed conflict in Afghanistan has been increasing in intensity, in terms of complexity, geographic scope and levels of violence, with particularly harsh consequences for children, UNAMA noted in the film festival’s press release.

In the first half of 2016, the United Nations documented 1,509 child casualties (388 deaths and 1,121 injured), according to its regular six-months protection of civilians report. According to this report children accounted for 85 per cent of all civilian casualties caused by Explosive Remnants of War (ERWs) – the second leading cause of child casualties. The UN further documented 46 incidents affecting access to education; 64 incidents affecting access to healthcare and 34 instances of children recruited and used by parties to the conflict.

(3) Danielle Bell, director of Human Rights Unit in (UNAMA) representative of UN OHCHR told AAN, “UNAMA’s aim was to raise awareness and bring attention to the issues of armed conflict facing children in Afghanistan as seen by local film makers in western region, many of whom are children and youth themselves.” Bell, who participated in the Herat event, added that UNAMA organised the film festival “to facilitate and encourage the exercise of cultural rights by male and female entrants of all ages, to provide a forum to recognise and celebrate achievements of short film makers and to encourage and facilitate female participation in society and cultural life.”

Thematic Category: Context & Culture