Half Value Life

A brilliant new generation of short film makers, including women, thrives in Afghanistan
Reena Mohan Kabul

Severin Blanchet, a French documentary filmmaker, was killed in Kabul in February 2010 during an attack on the hotel where he was staying. But his legacy lives on.

Blanchet had made 30 trips to Kabul organising classes for aspiring Afghan filmmakers, many of whom were award winners at the recently concluded First Autumn Human Rights Film Festival held in Kabul. All spoke with feeling of the debt they owed him.

At the week-long event held from October 1-7 at the French Institute of Afghanistan, a cultural centre run by the French Embassy, 50 films from 14 countries were screened. A total of $19,500 dollars was distributed in various award categories for Afghan and foreign films, but what drew the attention and interest of both the audience and the jury was the national selection. The diversity in documentaries, animation and short films proved the wealth of talent and potential that a new generation of Afghan youth has brought to the medium.

In his opening address, Malek Shafi'i, the festival director said, "There are about 33 human rights film festivals around the world. However, none of them are held in the Middle East or Central Asian countries that are gravely affected by human rights dilemmas. Our aim is to encourage filmmakers to use their cameras in documenting struggles against injustice and violence, presenting stories of people who are trying to create a more humane world."

The festival opened with a 10-minute short, Accordion by the great Iranian director Jafar Panahi, recently sentenced by his government to six years in prison and banned from making films for 20 years because of his support for pro-democracy forces in Iran. Shadmehr Rastin, jury member from Iran, who was also the scriptwriter of Panahi's Offside, said, "What Iran is doing with artists is similar to what the Taliban did in Afghanistan. By silencing him at a time when he is at the peak of his creative powers, they are killing Panahi's art and talent."

The festival, held simultaneously in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, was not without its anxious moments. The festival authorities faced pressure from the Iranian government to withdraw the Afghan feature film Neighbours, directed by Zubair Farghand. Scripted after extensive interviews with survivors, the film depicts the daily humiliations and brutalities faced by Afghan prisoners in an Iranian camp. The film was eventually screened under heavy security.

The greatest challenge for artists the world over is the growing opposition to creative freedom. Yet, young Afghans are showing great courage and determination in using the spaces available to them. Diverse films focusing on discrimination, injustice and violence drew full houses and enthusiastic discussions after the screenings.

Death to the Camera, directed by Sayed Qasem Hossaini, received the award for the Best Afghan Documentary. The film simultaneously weaves together various issues – labour, gender, ethnicity and aid – and also questions the medium of documentary itself. An employer accuses a woman of being a prostitute for appearing before the camera. An argument ensues off-camera; the woman returns to a group of co-workers to vent her grievances. A spirited exchange follows with accusations of ethnic discrimination against the bosses and cynicism about the current political situation. The camera crew eventually pulls away, taking us with them. Said Hossaini, "This retreat makes explicit the distance between the audience and the documentary subject. It also raises the question of mediation, central to this whole project: are we watching actuality or simply seeing something shaped and framed by those behind the lens?"

Around 15 policemen check all the cars that enter Kabul through Dehbori district. These men, selected from the various provinces of Afghanistan, stay together in three green containers with very basic accommodation facilities. Dehbori Check Point by Hamid Alizadeh follows these men through different times of the year. As they go about their work day and night, ensuring the city stays secure, we realise the city is actually indifferent to them.

Contrary to popular notions about Afghan conservatism, an increasing number of women are also picking up the camera and, unsurprisingly, they are turning towards women's lives as the subject of their films. We Stars by young Afghan actress, Aqeela Rezai, is a searing documentation of the humiliation that she and other actresses face for their choice of profession, both from their families as well as their co-workers. Since it is unsafe for a woman to be living by herself in Kabul, Aqeela lives with her family and faces their scorn for being a working woman. "It is hard to be a woman making films, but even harder to be an actress," she said. "In my film, I wanted to capture what I am experiencing right now as an artist."

The film shared the third prize for Best Documentary with Half Value Life by Alka Sadat, about Marya Bashir, the first woman in Afghanistan to become a public prosecutor, who works for eliminating violence against women in the Herat province. It is a position of high responsibility that women are often considered incapable of occupying. Such is the resistance against her from criminals, mafia bands and narcotics smugglers that one day she returned to find her house has been blasted.

Addicted in Afghanistan by Jawed Taiman is an intimate and uncompromising portrayal of the day-to-day struggles of two boys addicted to heroin. This is a serious problem in Afghanistan, with over a million people suffering from some sort of drug abuse and unable to access good healthcare. Supported by the Jan Vrijman Fund, the film has been screened at major international festivals and has picked up four awards. Said Jawed, "I am currently working on a feature length documentary Voice of a Nation: My Journey through Afghanistan, which focuses on the last 10 years of governance along with the presence of foreign troops and its effects on development, security and education."

In a country obsessed with Bollywood hits and Hindi soaps dubbed in the Dari language, it was a relief to find the Afghan feature films displaying sophisticated imagery and deft handling of actors. Roya Sadat's film Playing the Taar is about Ay Nabaat, a 17-year-old girl from an ethnic minority in Afghanistan, who is forcibly married to a man with three wives. When Ay Nabaat gets pregnant, her husband claims that the child is illegitimate as a way to get back at her father, with whom he has a hostile relationship.

Visually poetic in its treatment, 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 and the carpets is used repeatedly to suggest the underlying violence in the lives of the characters.

Passionate, enlightened and charged, the young filmmakers of Afghanistan are engaged in their attempt to show the 'real' Afghanistan, beyond the media-created image of constant war and violence. A Letter to the Light combines documentary and fiction in an imaginative way to convey the experience of a 13-year-old boy who is gradually losing his sight; Joys of Fervency uses a brilliant performance by the lead actor to tell the story of a man consumed by gambling; I want Horse not Wife is a gently humourous story of an American crew that hires 10-year-old Zal and other refugees living in a camp as 'extras' for a film; Mr Fazili's Wife is about the struggle of a young Afghan woman trying to lead an independent life as she tries to procure medical treatment for her daughter; You don't Belong to this Land is the story of Sardar, a young Afghan refugee who loses his job as a tailor in Iran because he does not have legal documentation; Mohammad Haroon Hamdard's Shabana uses sound in a chilling manner to signal the terrifying fate of a young girl who works in a brick factory to earn money for her father's treatment. One night when her father is suddenly taken to hospital, she is raped by a co-worker.

Malek Shafi'i and his festival team pulled off a stupendous feat by providing a rare and unique opportunity not only for Afghan filmmakers, but also for many from around the world. "After millions of dollars have been spent, it appears the notion of human rights is only on paper... Belief in an artist's power and influence causes us to try for change," said Shafi. "We hope that by running this festival in a territory of war and tragedy, we will be able to make the cultural identity of Afghanistan independent from political and military interests." 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2011