A new generation of Afghans are finding their voice in cinema, largely spurred by funding from Western donor agencies or European filmmakers who have regularly visited Kabul to train youngsters. And contrary to popular notions about Afghan conservatism, an increasing number of women are also picking up the camera and training it on women's lives.
Early this month, as many as 25 Afghan filmmakers turned out to support the weeklong First Autumn Human Rights Film Festival in Kabul. Often running to full houses, the festival showcased 50 films representing a diversity in country, content and form. The jury was composed of practitioners from France, Iran, Tajikistan, Venezuela and India.
The Afghan films selected for the festival mirrored the ethnic makeup of the country. The thought-provoking, and sometimes heated, post-screening discussions were a fitting tribute to the authenticity of stories being told by young Afghan men and women, shattering mainstream stereotypes centred on conflict and destruction.
In his opening address, Festival Director Malek Shafi'i said, “There are about 33 human rights film festivals around the world. However, none of them is in the Middle East or Central Asian countries that are gravely affected by human rights dilemmas. Our aim is to encourage filmmakers who use their cameras to document struggles against injustice and violence, presenting stories of people who are trying to create a more humane world.”
Alka Sadat , 24, shared the third prize for Best Documentary for her film Half Value Life , which follows the life and work of Marya Bashir, the first Afghan woman public prosecutor, working for the elimination of violence against women. Such is the resistance against her from criminals, mafia bands and narcotics smugglers that one day she returns to find her house destroyed.
Explaining why it was important for her to tell stories such as that of Marya Bashir, Alka said, “I show three types of women in Afghanistan — some lead miserable lives and get desperate; others are aware of this misery but are party to it because of a passive attitude; the third kind are actively fighting against injustice. Marya Bashir is in a position of high responsibility that women are often considered incapable of carrying.''
At 17, Alka assisted her older sister, Roya, on Three Dots , a low-budget 60-minute film shot on location in Herat. A year later, she made her first documentary before going on to make ten more in the last six years, many of which received national and international awards. She usually takes care of all the production aspects for her films including script, direction, cinematography and editing.
Alka and Roya jointly run a production company out of their home in Kabul, partly because it is cost-effective and partly because it is safer to avoid commuting daily.
In a country obsessed with Bollywood hits, filmmaking is however still tainted with stigma. “It is hard to be a woman making films, but even harder to be an actress,” says Aqeela Rezai. “In my film We Stars , I wanted to capture what I am experiencing right now as an artist.”
The film shared the third prize for Best Documentary for its searing documentation of the challenges faced by actresses in Afghanistan including Aqeela herself, a hugely popular star. Aqeela made her debut in 2003 in Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf's film Five in the Afternoon and subsequently acted in many Afghan TV serials. Despite being financially independent, she lives with her family as it is unsafe for a woman to live on her own in Kabul. She faces constant derision from her brothers, who scorn a working woman.
Her latest film, The Road Above , is a six-minute portrait of Mona, who works as a labourer to support her family after her heroin-addicted husband disappears. She does street construction but wears a burqa to protect the honour of her family.
“When I show my films around, many Afghans (particularly men) in the audience assume that the films are made for foreigners. They insist my characters should have a positive outlook and criticise me for giving voice to the oppression of women. That is perceived by them as irresponsible,” says Aqeela.
Festival Coordinator Diana Saqeb is a documentary filmmaker and well-known activist, whose debut documentary, 25 Darsad (25 Per cent), shows the daily lives of six women members of the Afghan Parliament, their experiences, observations and hopes for the future. Widely shown at film festivals as well as in Swedish and Norwegian Parliaments, the film won several awards. Diana's second documentary, Run Robina Run , was made at the time of the Beijing Olympics and celebrates Afghanistan's first woman athlete. Diana also led the first public rally for changes in the Shia Family Law in Afghanistan and firmly believes art should challenge people “to dare to doubt what they are told”.
Fariba Heidari has set up The House of Art in Herat to train young people (especially girls) to make films. This prolific 27-year-old woman has already directed 10 films. A recurring theme in her work is the difficulty faced by women in Afghanistan's recent political history. Her latest feature film, Paper Boats , reveals a socio-cultural fabric stained with dogma and ethnic and gender discrimination, as it follows five girls who grew up together in an old house. One of them leaves Afghanistan during childhood but returns at the age of 32 to retrace her friends.
Questions were asked on the ambiguous portrayal of Mullahs and the focus always being on the tragic aspect of women's lives. Fariba's response: “My aim is to go go beyond sensationalist headlines, uncover the personal lives and choices of the characters, and provoke the audience to ask hard questions.”
Roya Sadat , 30, is arguably Afghanistan's best-known woman filmmaker. Her film Taar wa Zakhma (Playing the Taar) received thunderous applause from a 400-strong audience at Kabul's First Autumn Human Rights Film Festival. The short-fiction film is about Ay Nabaat, a 17-year-old girl from an Afghan ethnic minority, who is forcibly married to a man with three wives. When Ay Nabaat gets pregnant, her husband claims the child is illegitimate just to take revenge on her father.
Visually poetic, the film uses symbolism to bring out the pathos of Ay Nabaat's situation. The young girl has woven carpets since childhood and sees her entire life interlocked to carpet strings. The red colour of the wool is used repeatedly to suggest the underlying violence in the lives of the characters.
Roya, who was unable to attend school under the Taliban regime, studied filmmaking on her own from books and DVDs. At the post-screening discussion she said, “Many men tell me I should not make such films since it shows Afghanistan in a bad way. But I am a woman and I worry for women everywhere. In a way our struggle is not over and cannot be until the women in my country are free to choose the direction their lives should take.”
In 2007, she directed Afghanistan's first soap opera, (Secrets of This House), for Tolo TV. The enormously popular serial reflected the joys and struggles of a family in contemporary Afghanistan.
At the festival, Roya was constantly surrounded by younger women filmmakers, for whom she is clearly a role model. She is currently raising funds for her next feature film. “If I cannot raise the money for 35mm, I will cut costs by shooting on digital format and transferring to celluloid. I am determined to make the film... and because everything else is lacking I must make up for that in willpower.”
Despite having a liberal family and being married to a filmmaker, Sediqa Rezai faced ostracism from her extended family. “Men can concentrate just on their work, but a woman has to look after both work and home,” she says. During the making of her latest film, her son was only weeks old. “I would take him to the location and feed him between shots. For me, there is no division in being a mother, director and woman — they are all linked.”
Her best-known work, Bricks and Dreams , one of a five-part documentary series, explores the lives of children in Kabul. The protagonist is a boy who is a labourer in a brick kiln, and the film follows him, showing his friendships, his occasional visits home and his dreams for a better life. Sediqa worries, “Afghanistan is trying to rebuild but there is so much left to do for its young people. Child labour is prevalent and girls are far too often unable to attend school...”
Three films made by women in their early 20s stood out because they were light-hearted and refreshing, very diverse in theme and treatment, yet extraordinarily accomplished.
Fatema Hasani is a video editor in Tolo TV and created a short animation called Hope , which shows a young Afghan girl; but it could equally be any girl anywhere in the world, aspiring for education, career, marriage, children...
Look, Who is Driving by Airokhsh Faiz Qaisary traces social prejudices in a humorous way as she sets about trying to get a driving licence.
I and My Mother uses drawings by a little girl to depict the image children have about their mother. The film's director, Halima Hashemi, has trained at the Simorgh Art and Culture Centre, in Heart, which also has a Women's Short Film Making Unit.
The writer is a documentary filmmaker and editor.
She was on the jury of the First Autumn Human Rights Film Festival held recently in Kabul.