Taliban who? Afghan filmmakers brave off-screen dramas

Some moviemakers risk their lives to bring provocative issues like gender and corruption to the big screen.

Anand Gopal
Saba Sahar is a filmmaker, but she must earn a living as one of Afghanistan's few female cops.

In the war-torn countryside, a maiden finds her path blocked by a group of threatening men.

But a woman from a nearby village suddenly jumps between the men and their victim. The men laugh at this ordinary peasant's attempt at a rescue.

Alas for them, this is no common peasant: It's Feroza! The undercover cop saves the day with some back flips and well-placed karate moves – all without smudging her eyeliner.

It's a scene from the movie "Najat," a recent title in the growing catalog of Afghan films that questions everything from gender roles to political corruption. Some filmmakers are braving death threats to bring such issues to the big screen, and they hope to change the way Afghans think.  

"I want to show that I am powerful," says Saba Sahar, who directed the film and starred as Feroza. "I want to convince all Afghan women that they are powerful."

Afghanistan has hundreds of small film companies, almost all of which started after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Like Indian Bollywood films, they usually contain song-and-dance routines. Unlike Bollywood films, they often focus on war, deprivation, and loss. Many lack happy endings: One recent feature follows the travails of an Afghan in search of food. The movie closes after the protagonist dies of starvation.

Funding is a constant problem. The films are often crudely produced and they struggle to compete with their more polished Bollywood counterparts. But home-grown movies are popular outside Kabul, where most don't understand the Hindi spoken in Bollywood pictures. 

Policing by day, directing at night

Ms. Sahar, a favorite among rural housewives, says she hopes to raise awareness about the widespread corruption that plagues the country. Later in "Najat," after another round of high-flying karate helps her nab a suspected kidnapping ring, Feroza delivers the captured men to her police chief for interrogation. When the men refuse to divulge their ringleader, the police begin torturing the suspects – not an uncommon practice here. When Feroza finds out, she becomes livid. "How dare you beat prisoners! We must follow the rule of law!" she insists. The police chief hangs his head in shame.

Sahar knows a thing or two about interrogations – when she's not acting and making movies, she works as one of Afghanistan's few female police officers.

Another of Kabul's enterprising filmmakers, Asad Salahi, is also a police officer. A diminutive man with a large mustache and booming voice, Mr. Salahi runs a police checkpoint north of Kabul, checking for drug traffickers and insurgents.

He's written some of his experiences into his upcoming feature, "The Hungry Wolf," a tale about Afghanistan's "land mafia" – powerful warlords with government connections who steal land and displace poor villagers. The sensitive subject is rarely discussed in the press out of fear of the warlords, but Salahi hopes that his movie, which is fictionalized but based on real events, will help expose the practice.

"We are trying to teach Afghans about their rights," he says. "There is no democracy here. The government and police take advantage of the people all the time." 

Such films earn Salahi powerful enemies. The Taliban sent him death threats after his previous movie was critical of the insurgents. He's already been told to stop producing "The Hungry Wolf." 

"I'm not scared," he says, pointing to a bulge in his right pocket. "I have my pistol. Let them come for me."

Hurdles didn't end with Taliban

Afghan moviemaking dates back to Soviet-funded film schools and academies of the 1970s. While years of war and Taliban rule dispersed much of the film community, a few directors never left the country.  

Said Rahim Saidi was one who stayed behind. He even made movies during the Taliban regime, when filmmaking was banned. His "Tears of Blood," shot in the late 1990s, tells the story of jobless youths who turn to drugs. His cameraman hid the camera under a burqa and secretly shot the cast as they acted out scenes on Kabul's streets.

"When the Taliban would come by, we would all scatter," actor Basir Mujahed says. "I would hide the camera in a crate and pretend that I was a shoeshine boy."

The Taliban captured and beat many of the crew, but Mr. Saidi managed to complete the film. In spite of the difficulties, he says that his love of cinema pushed him to continue making movies.

"I even ran secret training courses for filmmakers in my office, until one day the Taliban came and took everything, including the film and cameras," he recalls.

Filmmakers complain that their troubles continue today, albeit in a different form. "There is no money to spend, no good cameras or film," says Salahi. Like many other filmmakers here, he puts his own money into the films.

The Afghan government has also tried to clamp down on the industry. The Ministry of Culture, for example, recently asked moviemakers to submit their scripts for vetting.

"The Afghan government wants to keep film at a low level," says Siddiq Barmak, director of the award-winning "Osama," which portrays a young girl forced to dress as a boy to survive during the Taliban era. "They want us to make Bollywood-style films, but they don't want anyone to put money into making social and political movies."

Directors also say that they run up against cultural prejudices. "It's very hard to find girls to act in my films," says Sahar. "The culture doesn't allow women to act."

Some filmmakers even have to go to neighboring Tajikistan to find women. "But that's why we make these movies," Sahar adds. "It's to change people's minds."

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