Challenges and Promises of Afghan Cinema


By Jasmin Mehovic, mehovic@sarid.net

SARID, April 2004

 

Decades of the Afghan war have been documented by the pens and cameras of media emissaries from all over the world, revealing the suffering of the Afghan people under both Soviet and Taliban oppression. With the fall of the Taliban two years ago, a plethora of new, captivating testimonies overflowed from TV sets and newspaper stands around the globe. And just as we thought that all the televised reports, photographs and stories had given us a solid understanding of the anguish the Afghans went through, along came a wave of feature movies, bringing with them a new way to look at their tribulations. But these were not movies like “Rambo” or “Three Kings,” offering Hollywood-style, hastily made war stories. Films such as “Kandahar,” “The Speculator,” “Osama,” “Firedancer,” “Grobat” - which were made by Afghans themselves - revealed complex, yet realistic stories that intrigued and elated the Western audience. A growing number of observers hailed what seems to be the rise of a prosperous and powerful Afghan cinema. And although such enthusiasm may reflect the exaggerated optimism of some observers, a closer look at the Afghani cinema shows the existence of a powerful momentum – and the ability of Afghanistan to join the ranks of regional countries with successful and powerful film industries, such as Iran and India.

Afghan cinema has a modest, yet tumultuous history. Since the release of “Love and Friendship,” in 1951 until now, Afghans produced not more than 40 films, far less than any other country in the region. The most thriving period cinematically, in the last century, started in late 1960’s, with the founding of the Afghan Film by King Mohammad Zahir Shah, which, as well as making newsreels and documentaries, produced a number of full length films, such as “Escape,” “The Criminals” and “Migratory Birds.” The Afghan Films also triggered the emergence of new film studios in Afghanistan, such as the Nazir Films, Ariana Films and Shafaq Films, whose movies drew applause at film festivals in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. However, the Soviet invasion in 1979 delivered a severe blow to the Afghan film industry by imposing censorship and the production of propaganda films. The arrival of the Taliban had far more grave consequences. Under their regime films – deemed as un-Islamic – were systematically destroyed and the movie theaters wrecked. Mohammad Afzal Barialai, an Afghan film editor, recalls how, after the fall of Kabul in 1996, “the Taliban spent more than two weeks methodically destroying an irreplaceable archive of film and music.” Facing prosecution, many filmmakers fled the country while others “simply washed their hands of anything to do with the business,” notes Moghave At, an Afghan movie producer. (1)

The instability in the region not only hampered the progress of Afghan society but it also decreased the stability of Afghanis neighbors, weakening the development of their respective cinemas as well. Iranian cinema, in order to survive the Islamic revolution, had to undergo a radical transformation mirroring the changes in Iranian culture and society. Even today, despite a remarkable recognition of the Iranian cinema abroad, Iranian filmmakers still work in a limbo between political correctness on one side, and their artistic aspiration on the other. The film industries of Afghanistan’s neighbors to the north - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - were for decades under the firm grip of the centralized Soviet communist apparatus. The collapse of the Soviet Union found the cinema of these counties in destitute financial situations and more or less neglected by new political establishments. Cinema in the Indian subcontinent faces problems of its own. The Partition of India caused lasting damage to the film industry in this part of the world. Most of Lahore's Hindu film producers migrated to India and a number of talented Muslim film workers moved from Bombay film studios to Pakistan. (2) The complex political and cultural realities stemming from the animosity that existed between India and Pakistan until now has meant that cooperation between their filmmakers is still under heavy control by their respective governments. (3)

But as these regional countries continue to cope with the consequences of past developments, the current political situation in Afghanistan reveals a tone unique for this part of the world. The new political establishment demonstrates enthusiasm for the Afghan film industry as well as the determination to support it. The Ministry of Culture of the interim government, although in a severe financial situation itself, provides as much financial aid as possible to local film workers. The new regime also bestows a significant degree of freedom on the movie industry; Afghan filmmakers do not hesitate to reveal the influence of Iranian, Indian, Russian and American films on their work, nor do they hesitate to engage in joint ventures with foreign producers. Siddiq Barmak, - who does not hide the impact of Andrei Tarkovsky and Tengiz Abuladze on his work - notes that he could not have made “Osama,” a poignant story about womens’ suffering under the Taliban, without the collaboration of Iranian, Japanese, and Irish financiers who invested thousands of dollars in the film. Another example of such cooperation is “Shekastm,” a Bollywood-style love story, which is a joint venture between Afghan filmmakers and Indian producers.

It is not only the backing of the Afghan government that gives momentum to the Afghan cinema; the credit also goes to the Afghan filmmakers themselves who have shown a remarkable maturity while approaching filmmaking in the new sociopolitical setting. Along with the awareness that Afghan cinema is far from becoming a new Hollywood, Afghan filmmakers have demonstrated a profound understanding of the potential of small budget films, not only on the future of Afghan cinema, but also on the progress of the new country as whole. In addition to the potential of the film industry to generate significant financial resources from foreign investors, it also has the power to act as an ambassador for Afghan interests. The head of the culture department in Mazar, while appealing to the interim government not to forget the film industry, urged authorities to use it for the country reconstruction, stimulating interest in Afghan culture in the rest of the world. (4) The Afghani’s realization that camera lenses have the ability to convey a message in more powerfully than any other media is shared by their counterparts abroad; “The outsiders’ visions need to be contemplated by those of people who live those cultures,” writes Jamsheed Akrami, a film analyst at William Paterson University in New Jersey, commenting on the rise of the Afghan film. (5)

Afghan filmmakers are also aware that the power of ”moving pictures” lies in their ability to foster communication among the Afghans themselves. Afghani films occupy a role not of mere observers, but rather of a catalyst for sociopolitical and cultural change in this country. In an environment where most people cannot read, and where access to television and radio is still in a developing phase, the screen medium has a unique potential for storytelling surpassing that of any other medium or art form. But more importantly, the films about Afghan people themselves have power to act as a mirror in which they can reflect their own convictions and beliefs, and reexamine the events they went through. Visitors to a growing number of movie theaters throughout Afghanistan are getting a unique view of their culture, values, and history that was buried under the years of Taliban oppression. There is a thirst for films about themselves, says Siddiq Barmak. “People there are used to seeing English film and Hollywood movies and Indian movies, but they really want to see their own faces on the screen - their stories, their mythologies, their legends,” he concludes. (6)

Afghani films have shown the potential of moving pictures to depict historical developments in a way that no other medium can do at the present time, with the same ingenuity and charm seen in movies made by their neighbors. And as much as the movies from the region have been an inspiration for the Afghan filmmakers, Afghan films, in turn, have become an inspiration for film lovers throughout the world. Siddiq Barmak’s “Osama” was bestowed with a number of awards, including an ecumenical prize at the Cannes Film festival, the Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival, and UNESCO’s Fellini Silver Medal. Jawed Wassel’s “FireDancer,” a powerful story about the Afghan diaspora in America, was the first Afghan film candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The awards to Barmak, Wassel, and other Afghan filmmakers, not only show a profound admiration of their effort, enthusiasm, and vision by the world audience, but also a recognition that their work marks the beginnings of a powerful and fruitful Afghan cinema in the years to come.

 

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1) Afghan Film Industry Left on the Cutting Room Floor, by David Fox, Sunday Magazine, January 13, 2002
2) Pakistani Cinema, by Sajid Iqbal, British Film Institute, BFI, Spring 2003, http://imagineasia.bfi.org.uk
3 ) Can Tale of Love Win Propaganda War in India and Pakistan, by Gunjan Veda, The Independent (London), October 24, 2003.
4 ) Afghan Cinema Returns Home, by Catherine Davis, BBC News, South Asia, April 1, 2002
5 ) New Films from Iran and Afghanistan Show a Region in Transition, by Chris Vognar, Dallas Morning News, September 26, 2003
6 ) New Films from Iran and Afghanistan Show a Region in Transition, by Chris Vognar, Dallas Morning News, September 26, 2003


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