When asked in writing if she could discuss the plight of Afghan filmmakers after the Taliban regained power last weekend, Diana Saqeb Jamal succinctly declines. âMy only thought is we’re screwed. Sorry.”
The director, whose short film âRoqaiaâ (photo) was featured in the Horizons 2019 section of Venice, has been in Canada for months. A visit to her family there was prolonged by the pandemic, but she had already booked her return ticket to Kabul and was planning a lengthy shoot for a new documentary on women’s rights in a remote village near Iran.
The brutal Taliban takeover of Kabul on Sunday simply wasn’t calculated, despite weeks spent so worried that she couldn’t eat or sleep. His friends and family were in town; her camera, gear, hard drives and clothes were still in her apartment. Just two summers ago, the 80-seat Ai Khanum cinema she helped build opened and hosted an inaugural 100-film festival. Older women were crying – it was their first time in a movie theater in decades.
When she speaks, she describes a grief that hangs over her as âthe set of mountains of the Hindu Kushâ.
âI try to avoid any nostalgia for Kabul’s past, our cinema or our cultural center. I’m just like, ‘You’ll have time to cry this later’ because it’s all gone, âSaqeb Jamal said. Variety. âWe were all hoping so much that, 10 years later, Kabul would be a democratic example for the region. Now we are starting from scratch for the 100th time.
Against all odds, Afghan cinema has slowly flourished over the past decade, led in large part by the efforts of a handful of relentless women. When artists returned to the country after the United States forced the Taliban out of power in 2001, Afghan films began to gain acclaim at international festivals, many of which were made by self-taught and under-produced directors. funded facing a constant threat of violence.
This progress was dashed overnight with the return to power of the Taliban, who historically imposed extremely severe restrictions on women’s rights and freedom of expression.
When the group took control of most of the country in 1996, they immediately closed or bombed cinemas, destroyed televisions and banned music. Their fear of free thought puts artists at risk, notes Sahraa Karimi, director of the Venice premiere “Hava, Maryam, Ayesha” and director of state-owned Afghan Film.
âFor the past five years, we filmmakers have been cultural ambassadors showing the new face of Afghanistan to the world,â Karimi said. Variety from Kiev eating his first real meal in days. âNormal and everyday people just change with every diet. It is we who generate real change, which passes through culture, cinema, theater, an art that makes people think and question.
Karimi escaped to Ukraine on Monday with her two assistants and various family members after catching the world’s attention with an open letter calling on filmmakers around the world for help, accompanied by a heartbreaking video of herself running amid the chaos of the Taliban’s return.
She swears never to stop making films, but the prospect of working in current exile is sobering to the point that she calls it “the greatest sadness I have had in my life.”
“I’m still in shock, but I’m sure when things calm down I’ll start thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ “, she says. âHow many stories can you tell in Tajikistan or Uzbekistan? Are you going to build a whole Kabul elsewhere? It works in the short term, maybe, for one, two, or three movies, but not in the long term. “
The emergence of a growing film scene in Afghanistan challenged expectations of what was possible in a country beset by more than 40 years of war.
Afghan Film was juggling 22 films in different stages of production – three directed by female directors – which will be lost for the foreseeable future. Karimi’s second feature film, said to have been the first Afghan local comedy in recent memory, is now impossible to perform.
In November 2020, the director walked the red carpet at the country’s first official national film festival and presented the winners with golden statuettes. Two weeks ago, Afghan Film organized a festival for dozens of experimental and avant-garde shorts. The country even organized six iterations of an International Women’s Film Festival, held on the ancient ramparts of the oasis town of Herat.
âOur slogan was that Herat does not have a cinema, but that it has an International Women’s Film Festival,â co-founder Guissou Jahangiri darkly jokes.
Hours after the Taliban returned, public images of women in many parts of the country were already repainted.
“I have the impression of watching a [Quentin] Tarantino film. I look at what is really going on and I think, ‘No, this is an American film, not real American actions, “said Sahra Mani, founder of the Afghanistan Documentary House, asking that her current location be retained.
Artists and civil society workers try to avoid sleeping in their own homes, which are marked by Taliban activists with details of their addresses, source says Variety. They have good reason to hide, explains Mani: âThere are only two options now if you think differently, or if you are an intellectual, a filmmaker or an artist – you leave the country or the Taliban come and kill you. “
“We’re only a few female directors in Afghanistan, maybe 10, so they can easily find us, kill us, get rid of us – even in just an hour,” she says.
There are now more women than ever looking to become directors. When Mani started teaching cinema at Kabul University in 2014, she only had one student, but every year the number grew. Grasping the rare privilege of education, they proved to be, according to her, even “more courageous, more focused and more determined” than the boys.
âWe had just started slowly building our industry and our community – making films about Afghan life by Afghan filmmakers, showing up to different workshops and funds, receiving so many awards internationally,â said Mani. “We are losing so, so much that we have achieved by working so hard under the most difficult circumstances.”
US-based Afghan filmmaker Sonia Nassery Cole (“Black Tulip”) explained that dozens of young aspiring filmmakers and cameramen she and others have mentored are now reaching out to them with desperate appeals to the help to get out.
âI feel so helpless. How am I gonna get you out if you can’t even get out of your house? When the whole US military couldn’t? said Nassery Cole, currently speaking from Europe in a “constant state of trembling and disbelief”.
Even though his illegal filming in Afghanistan was never easy, until the events of recent days, the situation still looked promising.
“Pressure [Afghan women] are under built anger, and then that anger comes out in their talent, and so they fly away. This is where the Afghan women were – they were just stealing, âsays Nassery Cole.
âArt was coming back, filmmakers were coming back. There is so much talent in my country, so much hunger to tell the world their stories, but it is all closed and pushed behind a dark dark curtain. I doubt we’ll see another movie shot there in the next 30 years. “