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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 47, Dated 24 Nov 2012

    Kabul through the looking glass

    A small but determined band of Afghan filmmakers is fighting the odds to tell their stories and reclaim their country, finds Sunaina Kumar

    Nargis Azaryun, 19

    Photos: Anders Sømme Hammer

    Sadaf Fetrat, 20

    Sahar Fetrat, 16

    THE CAMERA follows the three girls as they idle time in a mall, and do what girls will do. One is eating a chocolate donut and the other is lining her eyes. They are discussing a new restaurant. As they step out from the bright lights of the mall, the setting alters dramatically, but it remains familiar. The dusty streets, the buildings reduced to rubble, the mud walls, is Kabul as we know it from news bulletins across the world. The juxtaposition of the two sights, everyday civilian life, and on the other hand, the after-effects of war, makes the viewing of the documentary Kabul Cards a disjointing experience. Made by three young women, Nargis Azaryun, Sadaf Fetrat and Sahar Fetrat, the 17-minute film was screened at the recent Mumbai Film Festival (MFF). It is a work of fledgling feminism; the women interview people on the streets of Kabul with a handheld camera, film a protest march against the harassment of women and highlight the first feminist newspaper of the city.


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    Sahar Fetrat says in an impassioned voice, “If women in other societies can be free, then we need to affect that change in Afghanistan. We are ready to step up for the revolution and even if we have to pay for it with our lives, it will be worthwhile.” The fiery speech on women’s rights from a 16-year-old is unexpected. “As Afghani women, we have to fight for our rights from the moment we are born, which is why most women from Afghanistan seem much older than their age,” explains Nargis, 19, a law student, an activist and a filmmaker. Twenty-year-old Sadaf is a student, a drummer in a rock band, a filmmaker and a volunteer with an NGO. For young Afghans, it is not enough to do just one thing, they must do more to make up for lost time. Sahar, Sadaf and Nargis were in Mumbai for ‘Kabul Fresh’, a focus on the emerging cinema of Afghanistan at the festival.

    When the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, the cinema of the country was bludgeoned, reels of film footage burnt on the streets, theatres shut down and the screening of films banned. Filmmakers were exiled to neighbouring countries like Iran and Pakistan and some to the West. From 2001, films were being made in Afghanistan once again; Bollywood- derived commercial entertainers made for the local audience, with shoestring budgets, ham acting and plenty of action, which have been the mainstay of Afghan cinema in its glory days of the 1960s and ’70s, made a comeback. There was also an increasing demand for commissioned works by embassies and aid organisations to feed the world’s all-consuming curiosity about Afghanistan.

    The irony in the narrative of Afghan cinema is that there are many films to choose from when it comes to Afghanistan, yet, only a handful have been made by Afghans themselves and even fewer by Afghans living in Afghanistan. Filmmaker Siddiq Barmak’s Golden Globe-winning Osama was the first full-length feature to come out of the country after the Taliban, but for long it was a flash in the pan. However, in this country of young people looking to erase 30 years of war history and start afresh, change is coming in little by little. Over the past few years, independent films made by young local filmmakers have started regularly featuring at international film festivals and there is a buzz around Afghan cinema, which has never been witnessed before.

    Jean-Luc Godard once said if photography is truth, cinema is truth twenty-four times per second. Every Afghan filmmaker TEHELKA spoke to expressed an overriding urge to tell their stories in their own words, to come to terms with the many truths of Afghanistan. They are documenting everyday life in the country, and inevitably addressing the big issues of war, religion, poverty, opium addiction and women’s rights, strongly critiquing society and government through stories of ordinary people. Those who cannot invest in high-tech equipment use mobile phones; what they lack in sophistication, they make up in intent.

    The Jump Cut Film Collective is a group of adventurous filmmakers from Kabul, most of them in their 20s, who save money from their full-time jobs, pool their resources and put it into making films. They all double up as scriptwriters, directors, editors and actors and everyone helps everyone. There are no film schools in the country, the members of Jump Cut are self-trained filmmakers, who meet once a week and organise screenings at their homes. Their films have an unfinished quality, the camera, sound and editing may lack finesse, but they are “rooted in their milieu and reflect the reality of Afghanistan by Afghans as opposed to what people on the outside think about it,” says Taran Khan, curator of the Afghan Film Section at MFF.

    At the MFF, two films of a selection of eight were produced by Jump Cut. ! by Sayed Hassan Fazili is a short film about a cemetery of martyrs in Afghanistan, the walls of which are built with bullet shells. Fazili makes his critique of war and violence by showing and not telling.

    As real as it gets Stills from Dusty Night (top) and The Outpost

    The Outpost by Syed Jalal Hussaini, a 24-year-old filmmaker from Kabul and the youngest member of Jump Cut, is a punch-to-the-gut short film about policemen in Afghanistan, a job which has been described as one of the most dangerous in the world. A young policeman about to get married must confront his country’s history of violence as he guards over a Talib, in the course of which he realises how futile is the idea of chasing personal goals in front of nation and duty.

    Earlier this year, Hussaini was a part of Berlinale Talent Campus in Berlin that earmarks promising filmmakers. A shy young man, who prefers spending his time watching movies, he met us on the sidelines of MFF and spoke of his brand of cinema, which he describes as artistic. “We started by making two-minute short films on our mobiles, slowly we invested in cameras. There are hardly any takers for our films in our country. But, we, as the young people of Afghanistan, want to set things right, and give our people hope and faith. Cinema is the only way I know how to do this,” says Hussaini.

    ‘We want to set things right, and give our people hope and faith. Cinema is the only way I know how to do this,’ says Syed Hussaini

    This idea of activist cinema is reflected by all young filmmakers in the country. Dusty Night, a poignant short film, another festival favourite, depicts the street cleaners of Kabul who clean the streets of dust every night only for it to reappear in the morning. They symbolise the Sisyphean job of putting together a new future for the county. In Kabul Cards, a woman on the street says, “You have to be brave to be a woman in Afghanistan.” And perhaps you have to be doubly brave to be a woman filmmaker in Afghanistan, and sisters Roya and Alka Sadat are two of the bravest women, who, through their prolific work, have highlighted the dismal condition of Afghan women. Their films like Half Value Life and Three Dots are about the everyday struggles of ordinary Afghan women.

    Alka Sadat, 31, says, “Many women in Afghanistan are illiterate, they can’t read or write, but when they see a film, they can learn more about their rights. We hope to change the lives of these women, and I am hopeful that one day we will see that change.”

    Jawed Taiman, amongst the most well-known Afghan filmmakers whose documentary Addicted in Afghanistan on the ills of opium addiction did the rounds of all major film festivals, is ready with his next film, Voice of a Nation, about the presence of foreign troops in the country. In an email interview, Taiman, who moved to Scotland during the Taliban years and returned to Afghanistan after their fall, says, “We do not have an audience in Afghanistan itself like you have in India. We lack professional equipment and professional filmmakers. The new generation is eager to make films, but with very small budgets. We try our best to make the best short films we can. A lot of movies are made every year, but a majority of them are imitations of Bollywood entertainers shot on digital cameras with very bad acting. We have two different categories of filmmakers — a) those who make films for commercial reasons like making DVDs and selling them in the market, and b) the new generation of filmmakers who do their best to produce quality films that end up at international film festivals. People are great fans of Bollywood and Hollywood, and you will see Indian and Turkish dramas on our local TV stations. This keeps the people of Afghanistan entertained.”

    Taiman talks about the struggle he faced while filming his documentary. “It was not an easy task for me. Doing the research, then finding my characters who were two young teenage drug addicts at the centre of Kabul. Spending an entire year with them and sometimes I was locked inside the room while they smoked heroin and I had to film them. These two very young heroin addicts made me cry, to see the future of my country dying in front of my eyes, yet our government does very little to help them.”

    THE FUTURE of cinema in the country is uncertain. At the recent Busan Film Festival in South Korea, director Siddiq Barmak, the face of Afghan cinema worldwide, who took sanctuary in Pakistan during the Taliban years, expressed his fear about the dreaded return of Taliban with the withdrawal of NATO forces in 2014. Like their predecessors, the new generation of filmmakers, who are boldly defying censorship, may have no option but to go into exile. This may explain the urgency and almost frenetic pace of work by many young filmmakers.

    The story of Afghan cinema is the story of filmmakers who do not have a ready audience, nor any financial backing and screens for exhibition. They face constant danger, but they make movies despite these odds. Unlike other corners of the world, this is cinema that is not part of any industry, but a movement whose time may have come.

    Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
    [email protected]

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 47, Dated 24 Nov 2012



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