Afghan cinema stages strong comeback

Australian artist and filmmaker, George Gittoes, famous for his documentary film Love City Jalalabad, told me something interesting last week. “It would be much harder to film something in the streets of Sydney than in Jalalabad.” His words sounded incongruous; almost ridiculous. Here was a foreign filmmaker, telling me it’s all hunky dory in Jalalabad, the stronghold of Taliban. I thought he must be nutty as fruitcake to even suggest that. But, after an engaging conversation that lasted for hours, I realized he had a point, a valid point.
 
George is currently making films in Afghanistan; besides painting, drawing and moving around the globe. He also runs Yellow House, an art and film school in Jalalabad, where he trains young Afghan artists and filmmakers. His work, in his own words, is a ‘war against war’.
 
The first day he arrived in Jalalabad, one of the video stores was bombed. He booked a hotel and started working on the script. Love City Jalalabad, in his words, is all about ‘fun, joy and love’; while his other venture Miscreants of Taliwood is a relatively dark film about an embattled industry and the hardships. In all these years working in Afghanistan, he tells me, he has never faced any violence or harassment from armed opposition groups.  
 
Last week, I also had a chance meeting with Sahil Malikzadah, who runs Aazraksh Film Productions and has acted in many Pashtoo language films. With long curly hair and strong frame, he looks perfect as villain. “Are you not afraid of Taliban. Don’t you think they will trim your hair and chop your head if they catch hold of you,” I asked him. With a mysterious snigger, he leaned down and gave a thoughtful reply. “We have overcome the fear of death, the show must go on.” Sahil has also filed his nomination papers for upcoming Provincial Council elections.
 
In last one decade, thanks to some gritty and audacious filmmakers, Afghan cinema has clambered back from the ashes of war. Both local and foreign filmmakers have contributed to this ‘change’ after the dark and depressing years under Taliban.
 
Last year, a film set against the dramatic landscape of contemporary Afghanistan and based on the national sport Buzkashi, created palpable buzz across the world. Shot entirely in Kabul by an alliance of Afghan and foreign filmmakers, Buzkashi Boys feature two best friends, a street urchin and a blacksmith’s son, struggling to realize their dreams.  The film was critically acclaimed and nominated for the Academy Awards.
 
Like the country, the Afghan film industry also has had a turbulent history. Since the release of Love and Friendship way back in 1951, the industry here has not produced more than 50 films. During the reign of King Zahir Shah, some small documentaries and full-length feature films like The Criminals, Migratory Birds and Escape were produced by Afghan Film, a state-run film company established by King Zahir in 1968. In the early 1970s, many new film studios mushroomed across the country; most notably Shafaq Films, Ariana Films and Nazir Films. The films made by them were screened at many international film festivals and widely acclaimed by both critics and public.
 
With the Soviet invasion in 1979, the film industry started to crumble in the face of draconian censorship. After communists were thrown out and Taliban steadily gained ground, the industry totally vanished from the scene, as it was considered a blasphemous and unIslamic practice. The film studios were demolished and the movie theaters were reduced to rubble by guerilla fighters of Taliban.
 
However, there is always light at the end of tunnel. A new dawn appeared after Taliban was ousted in 2001. Afghan movie industry got a fresh lease of life, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of local filmmakers supported by their western counterparts and the government. Many small-budget films were made in the years that followed, signifying the return to normalcy after groping in the dark for years, first under communists and then under Taliban.
 
The last one decade has witnessed an explosion of films in Afghanistan, mostly independent short films, but also some full length films made by local and foreign filmmakers. Most of the films made in the post-Taliban era deal with the Afghan society and how it has bounced back from obscurity and embraced change. There are films depicting conflict, women’s rights, tribal cultures, traditional sports etc. In 2004, Roya Sadat, one of the first female filmmakers to emerge after the fall of the Taliban, made a film Three Dots, which gives a sneak peek into the patriarchal society in Afghanistan. A local strongman forces a widowed mother of three to remarry against her will, and the main female lead is forced by men to trade opium across the Iranian border where he ends up getting arrested.
 
In 2007, Zolykha's Secret, one of the first feature films from post-Taliban era, played to packed houses at many prestigious film festivals. The film, written and directed by Horace Ahmad Shansab, is a fascinating account of a close-knit family in a rural belt of Afghanistan, trying to survive war and preserve their sanity. The film was screened at many festivals, including San Francisco Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival among others.
 
In 2008, Alka Sadat, an award-winning filmmaker from Herat province, made a small documentary film Half Value Life, featuring Maria Bashir, the only female prosecutor in the country.  The documentary trails the brave officer as she deals with the hardened criminals, drug smugglers, mafia goons and strives to eliminate the violence against women in Afghanistan. The gripping documentary bagged many awards at international film festivals like Women's Voices Now Film Festival, Los Angeles (2011), Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival (2011), Almaty International Film Festival (2006), Italy International Trevignano Film Festival (2007), Bahrain Human Rights International Film Festival, Egypt Film Festival (2009) et al.
 
Siddiq Barmak, a veteran Afghan filmmaker who also served as the Head of Afghan Film Organization from 1992 to 1996, made Opium War in 2009, set in the poppy fields of Afghanistan. He ingeniously uses the elements of satire and surrealism to speak of the wars fought from the beautiful but dangerous poppy fields. The film was Afghanistan’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at Oscars. It was screened at many international film festivals, including the Rome Film Festival in 2008, where it ended up winning the prestigious Golden Marc’Aurelio Critics’ Award for Best Film. Barmak’s previous film ‘Osama’ had bagged Golden Globe award in 2004.
 
Emaan, a 2010 feature film by Haris Yusufi, created a stir when it became the first Afghan film to be screened in a foreign theatre – Reading Cinema in Australia. The film, about a young and honest cop who upholds law and order, won the 2011 South Asian Film Festival award for Best Film.
 
The boom of Afghan cinema is reflected by the growing number of film entries at international film festivals. This year, A Man’s Desire for Fifth Wife, became the first film made by an Afghan filmmaker to be screened at International Film Festival of India (IFFI). Directed by Sediq Abedi, the film was shot in northern Faryab and Balkh provinces. It is a compelling story of an Afghan man who wants fifth wife, though he is allowed only four. The film depicts the pervasive culture of misogyny in Afghan society and the violence against women. It also beautifully portrays the traditions and culture of Afghanistan. The film will also be screened at Boston International Film Festival (BIFF) next year.
 
However, the nagging concerns and apprehensions about the future of Afghan cinema continue to worry filmmakers here. Some veteran filmmakers like Siddiq Barmak, Latif Ahmadi and Ibrahim Arify have raised such concerns time and again. They fear the industry will slip back into chaos and disorder after the withdrawal of international community in 2014. But, they are not willing to retreat or surrender. The resilience is infectious.
 
Meanwhile, George is optimistic about the future of Afghanistan and Afghan cinema. “At 64 years of age, when I should be retiring near a beach in Australia with my family and children, my greatest desire is to see the Afghan artists and filmmakers achieve their full potential and bring Afghan culture to the world’s attention,” he tells me. Aamen to that, I say!

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