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· By Martin Gerner, July 2005

By Martin Gerner, July 2005

17.09.2005 11:30

By Martin Gerner, July 2005

Moving Pictures in Afghanistan Once Again ‘We saw our first Western – Rio Bravo with John Wayne – together in a cinema. I still remember how I asked Baba to take us to Iran so that we could meet John Wayne. Baba broke into laughter and explained dubbing to us. Hassan and I were taken aback. In reality John Waybe didn’t speak Farsi and he wasn’t an Iranian either’. Khaled Hosseini – The Kite Runner In the West Afghanistan is generally viewed as a political problem. Afghan cultural life remains virtually unknown.But that could soon change, particularly thanks to Afghanistan’s film-makers. Afghan films have won their first prizes and other highly promising projects are under way. Nevertheless there are obvious problems. Journalist Martin Gerner, who launched a festival of films from Afghanistan at Cologne in Spring 2005, reports on this situation. In 2004 Siddiq Barmak’s ‘Osama’ received the USA’s Golden Globe Award for the best foreign film. Since then this movie has become fairly well-known in both the States and Europe. However viewers have greater difficulty in registering the name of its director, who is probably the most celebrated of contemporary Afghan film-makers. One may well ask what was being celebrated at that time in what was hailed as ‘the first post-Taliban film’. Was it the images of a state of affairs from which the West remains convinced it liberated the Afghan people? Did this involve Afghanistan’s return to the ranks of nations with a culture? Or a fresh start for Afghan cinema? Seeing the end of the Taliban as a ‘tabula rasa’ for Afghan cinema is not true in the light of the country’s history. ‘A country which used to produce a revolution as often as a film’ - wrote the International Film Guide about Afghanistan in 1983. So a state of emergency as a (cinematic) everyday situation, and a trauma for which both outsiders and Afghanis were to blame. Censorship prevailed for decades, whether after Daud’s coup in 1973, the Russian occupation, the Mujahedin period, or most recently under the Taliban when a large number of film copies were burned while most of the originals could, thank goodness, be saved. The brief interregnum of President Haifzullah Amin provided an absurd tragic culmination in this propagandistic abuse of the art of film amid an abundance of revolutions, occupations, and coups. After he had murdered his way to becoming head of state in September 1979, Amin had his progress towards seizure of power depicted in a feature film where he played himself. His family and ministers also had to struggle to reproduce reality in this both horrifying and ludicrous chapter in the history of the Afghan film. Today’s trend is for docu-soaps about heroes and rogues whereas previously cinema had been a matter of life and death. Belonging as they did to the intelligentsia, film-makers at that time were threatened, imprisoned, and tortured. Impulses towards self-censorship survive up to the present day. ‘Even now films in Afghanistan have to submit to censorship’ – in the opinion of Norbert Spitz, director of the Kabul Goethe Institute. As the newly-arisen media landscape demonstrates, political issues are now treated relatively liberally. The areas of friction include dialogue and images which spark off controversy over the prevalent interpretation of Islam and its tradition in Afghanistan. Atiq Rahimi’s ‘Chak o Chakestar’/Earth and Ashes’ presents a completely naked woman, traumatised by war. This scene was shown at the premiere in the Ariana cinema but was cut for further presentations in Kabul. The actress involved was an Iranian. The public isn’t as yet so accepting either. Only recently a young woman presenter working for Tolo TV, a commercial set-up in Kabul which transmits both Bollywood and Hollywood films, was murdered. People assume that she was too modern for both, her family and the conservative parts of society. Afghan camera-women, who make documentary films for AINA media NGO have received death threats. Their films are presented and praised at festivals abroad, but in their homeland for the time being their makers prefer them not to be shown any longer. ‘In Afghanistan’ – says Norbert Spitz – ‘cinema is still seen as somewhat offensive. Films are still viewed as being immoral by conservative (and non-urban – ed.) circles’. Moroccan director Hassan Benjelloun says in another context that ‘it is still the case in an Arab country that the whole family goes to the cinema’, but that remains wishful thinking in Islamic Afghanistan in the year 2005. Siddiq Barmak tells the story of how when he was director of the Afghan State Film Company there was an attempt at making a weekly visit to the cinema easier for married couples. That came to grief when distrustful watchmen at the entrance to cinemas called couples’ relationships into question rather than protecting them against molestation and thus making it easier for them to go to the cinema. Between 1978 and 2001 the cultural responsiveness to cinema that once existed was destroyed. The humouristic depiction of ‘De konde zoi/The Widow’s Son’ where the hero of this series takes off his pirhan tambon’ in front of the cinema and slips on a pair of trousers so as to be allowed (in) effectively symbolizes that period. Nevertheless there are remarkable new approaches in Afghan cinema of the past three years, with women directors making their first feature films providing reason for hope. Particularly worthy of notice is ‘Se noughta/Three Dots’, the debut of Roya Sadat, a 24 year-old director and student from Herat. This is an ambitious first work by someone who taught herself, learning about film and directing from American handbooks translated into Farsi. ‘Se noughta/Three Dots’ tells the story of a single woman in a village, attempting to bring up three children. At the same time she is made use of by a military commander as a drugs courier and resists enforced marriage with an older man. A political film. ‘I would like audiences to get a real picture of the situation facing people confronted there with drugs’ – says Roya Sadat. The film was shot in the no-man’s-land between Herat and the Iranian border with a digital camera, borrowed money, and – unusually – an adult woman as the main performer. Roya Sadat tells of threats and intimidations both before and during shooting. She had to search for two years before finding her actress whose husband only agreed on condition that his wife didn’t have any prolonged conversations with men in the film. ‘We had nothing. Only courage, faith, and the conviction of being trailblazers’ (Roya Sadat). How does she see Afghan cinema? ‘It will be some time before Afghan cinema finds itself and can be defined. At present we’re trying to show reality instead of staging it’. For Amin Farzanefar, german-iranian author of ‘Cinema of the Orient’ (‘Kino des Orients’) which also contains a chapter on Afghanistan, such self-discovery is only logical. He believes it is too soon to apply primarily aesthetic criteria to new Afghan cinema and to demand continuation of a narrative language which he sees in older films such as Saeed Orokzai’s ‘Mard ha ra qaul ast/Men Keep Their Promises’ or Latif Ahmadi’s ‘Faraar/Escape’. Afghanistan has never known an auteurs’ cinema even though in seventies films there were borrowings from Italian Neo-Realism. What fundamentally constitutes ‘the Afghan film’ cannot be clearly characterised. There is a folklore element and extended musical passages attract attention. Simple narratives are more often to be found than interwoven strands of action. Actors’ expressivity is limited and frequently marked by theatrical gestures. Dari has prevailed over Pashto as the language of cinema. Siddiq Barmak also indicates a difference: ‘In literature a style could develop. People speak of the poetry and prose of resistance. But in cinema there was no ongoing development and so no autonomous style could emerge’. Borrowings from Iranian cinema are not just chance. The saturated colours in ‘Osama’, the beauty (despite the hard times mediated by the images), and the clear-cut, simple symbols betray closeness to the neighbour state’s cinema. That may be an outcome of what the two countries have in common culturally. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the well-known Iranian director, helped Siddiq Barmak with both advice and assistance towards production. The film’s financing and distribution were assured by assistance from Japan and Ireland. Afghanistan permeates the cinematic work of the Makmalbaf family in recent years like some leitmotif. That doesn’t only bring them praise. There’s talk of ‘colonisation’ (Amin Farzanefar) regarding the preparation of Samira Makhmalbaf’s ‘At Five in the Afternoon’. ‘Joy of Madness’, depicting the making of Samira’s film, shows her team trying to win over Afghans as actors from off the street. The tone of cultural superiority to be felt here is presented as being depressing. That reading contrasts strikingly with the motives that led Mohsen Makmalbaf to establish himself in Kabul at that time, assisting the construction of schools and libraries in Afghanistan. One of his proclaimed objectives was to break the dominance of Bollywood Indian films in Afghanistan. Makmalbaf called on Iranian film-makers to give financial support to Afghani cinemas. His aim: ‘To change the imagination of Afghans about cinema. Even the worst Iranian films have a social message to convey’, he said in comparison. However, Bachman Nirumand, a man of letters and himself an Iranian, believes that ‘Mohsen Makmalbaf’s influence on Afghan cinema is harmful. He shows Afghanistan and its people almost exclusively as representing reactionary morality and symbolism. This exoticism accords with the taste of a Western public and at the same time its choice of images reinforces prejudices about Afghanistan in the country itself’. In ‘At Five in the Afternoon’ Kabul is depicted as a city dominated by the rhythm of horses and carts. Unlike the actual reality cars are rarely to be seen. Many Europeans mistakenly believe Mohsen Makmalbaf’s ‘Kandahar’ to be the first ‘Afghan film’ they have ever seen. Definition of what the Afghan film is becomes even more complex when Afghanis abroad are taken into account. In the opinion of Homayoun Karimpour ‘There is a great cultural difference between film-makers in exile and at home. We would like to shoot films in Afghanistan but there is no film industry. It is still too early to bring all the components together again’ – is the wait-and see attitude of this director, now living in France. ‘Hijrat’, a film by Wahed Nazari, a director from Kandahar who has lived in Germany for some time, shows that even emigré auteurs don’t necessarily enjoy financial abundance and in their work are confronted with current prejudices against Islamic culture. As a Franco-Afghan joint project Atiq Rahimi’s ‘Chak o Chakestar/Earth and Ashes’ is somewhat an exception. Its budget of over 2 million euros is 100 times larger than the money available to lowcost Afghan films. Rahimi’s film, which stages war and its consequences as an impressive sequence of parables, makes use of montage technique, a visual structure, and an aesthetic that all derive from large-scale Western cinema. At the same time this film seems to merge with the author’s biography to produce an individual cinematic language. So individuality as the outcome of territorial dispersal is another characteristic of the Afghan film. At any rate you can’t talk about a unified film scene in Afghanistan. Today Afghanistan lacks authors of striking film scripts. Quite often one person combines the roles of actor, script-writer, and director. There is an absence of producers with know-how and knowledge of this business and the market, and also capable of initiating co-productions. So long as big money is not to be made with films no-one bothers about copyright. Private TV stations thus simply transmit whatever film copies they can find for 2 U.S. dollars in the bazaar. As in the rest of the world television and DVD live off the cinema. Satellite dishes are increasingly widespread in Kabul; ‘Ariana TV’ will soon join ‘TOLO’ as another private station. Afghan Television does not provide a distribution outlet either since it neither co-produces nor acquires transmission rights. Initiatives are coming from, for instance, France where Atiq Rahimi lives. He is committed to assisting young Afghani film-makers. The Paris-based Institut National de l’Audiovisuel’ (INA) and the ‘Three Continents Festival’ at Nantes have assured part of the Afghan film legacy with the approval of Afghan Film. They have spent millions of euros on transferring a dozen feature films from celluloid to digital DV-Cam format, including ‘Ishq wa dost/Love and Friendship’, the first such feature dating from 1946. In addition director Claude Lelouch has brought renewed glory to the venerable Ariana cinema in Kabul with his ‘Un cinéma pour Kaboul’ initiative and trainingfocused French cultural policy both mocked and envied abroad. In this 600-seat hall, fitted out with imported wood and red velvet seats, 30 % of the programme consists of films from Europe. There has already been a Japanese and a German film week, and a Russian week is planned for this year. And what about the Afghan film? It is not to be found in the 'Ariana', Afghanistan’s most modern cinema. ‘This cinema belongs to the city’ – says Hughes de Wavrin, managing director of ‘Un cinéma pour Kaboul’; the Mayor thinks Afghan films too complicated and fears people will stay away. With Indian blockbusters or a French action film like Luc Besson’s ‘Taxi’, which is entertaining and unshocking, he fills the cinema three times a day and is happy about the takings. de Wavrin thinks that the people operating the 'Ariana' are sceptical about Afghan films and perhaps also lack courage. Against that background it will be difficult to use cinema for building a bridge between intellectuals and ordinary people – as Siddiq Barmak hopes. So diverse initiatives striving for a festival of Afghan cinema in its own country – if possible as soon as 2005 – are thus making heavy weather of such a venture. In addition there is the tense security situation. Safety measures regarding the parliamentary elections in September speak against a festival. Paradoxically, Afghanistan to some extent spurns its own cinema. Money and the understandable wish to catch up in the Hindukush with some of global fun culture result in film-makers being marginalized. If their films satisfy the demands of quality, they are shown at festivals abroad. ‘There’s little work in Kabul’ – says cameraman and film-maker Mirwais Rekab, who is in the process of setting up ‘New Wave Film’, a new production company, with some of his colleagues. He can’t yet say where the commissions and the money will come from. Like others for the moment he relies on contracts from the UN and other international organisations. This assistance cuts both ways since these shorts and documentaries serve both the population’s needs and also the sponsors’ expectations and stereotypes. These are often features or teaching films with didactic messages and such crude declarations as ‘Only together are we a nation’, ‘Parents, keep an eye on your children’, or ‘Men, let your wives go to a doctor when they are pregnant’. Norbert Spitz soberly declares: ‘The cinema is not of any great importance in terms of the urgent problems facing the country. Hardly any of the donor countries are ready to get involved to any extent worth mentioning. To me it seeems that even self-organisation and self-assistance are still in need of consolidation’. Afghan Film, the state film company, and the state radio really are in need of urgent reform. Administration and employees are pulling in different directions, and personal egoisms obstruct vision and co-operation. In Kabul University’s Faculty of Fine Arts there is a ‘Theatre and Film Department’, but the film section lacks both technology and staff. The Goethe Institute, working together with Afghan Film, offers qualification in the form of workshops on camera, direction, editing, and sound. There is no serious training for actors; what comes closest are the theatre workshops which accompany Kabul’s International Theatre Festival in the autumn. Official government cultural policy seems to have few concrete ideas about what place and support should in future be assigned to the Afghan film. For decades priority was given to importing foreign films – but there too a clear concept was lacking. In 1982 Lyle Pearson noted in the previously mentioned International Film Guide: ‘Afghanistan has in no sense created a truly revolutionary cinema, as the USSR, Cuba and Chile did under the first few years of Communist rule’. Admittedly we are speaking of Marxism’s struggle against Islam, and of Afghanistan’s production of some 70 feature films since 1945 – as compared with around 80 in Iran, and 500 in India, every year. An entire generation of Afghan film-makers received training in the Soviet Union and the former Eastern Block, while Afghan Film’s studios were built with assistance from the USA. In Kabul seven cinemas are by now showing films again. In Herat, the city of 500,000 people in the West of the country, there is no cinema at present but a new one is being planned. The cinemas in Mazar-i- Sharif have two old projectors from the Soviet period which are due to be replaced; and in Kunduz the only cinema was closed a few weeks ago because hardly anyone came there. For the rural population there is only the ‘mobile cinema’ which turns up sporadically bringing films to villages – an achievement resurrected after the Taliban even though it doesn’t function properly at present. That is not unimportant with regard to the yawning gaps between town and country, between Kabul and the provinces. But how can the lost film culture be revived? By valuing dramaturgy or respecting the art of narrative? Some people criticise Siddiq Barmak for the title of his film ‘Osama’ alone. They say it evokes ‘Bin Laden’ which is blatant and deceptive with regard to the contents. The conditionality of art, anchored in Western constitutions, is only hearsay for these critics, which makes a comingtogether more difficult. Barmak reminds us that ‘Cinema can play a very great part in a country where 80 % of the population has a very low educational level and can neither write nor read’. ‘The image can change a very great deal here and people are getting used to this art once again’ is his optimistic forecast. One hears that at present people are thinking again about days of special presentations so as to make it possible for women and children to go to the cinema. Afghan civil society is active. For instance the 'Foundation for Culture and Civil Society' (www.afghanfccs.org), an effervescent cultural initiative, shows international films every week, thereby doing pioneer work. The Goethe Institute presents German feature films on Sundays but audiences are small. A well-equipped public cinematheque where people could see and borrow films would be desirable. Perhaps prominent figures in Afghanistan and abroad must do more for the film in the Islamic world. The Afghan cinema’s objective must be to find a way out of isolation. Here too that cannot be done alone. Further impulses in cultural assistance must come from outside, aiding Afghani efforts.

Martin Gerner, July 2005

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