West-Eastern Cinematheque

    Moving Pictures Once Again
    Film and Filmmakers in Post-Taliban Afghanistan

    The West generally considers Afghanistan to be a political problem. Many people completely overlook the fact that the country also has a cultural scene that is producing many promising films and film projects. Martin Gerner has launched an Afghan Film Festival in Cologne and reports on progress.


    Siddiq Barmak’s 'Osama' (2003). Copyright: Delphi
    In 2004, Siddiq Barmak’s Osama received the US Golden Globe Award for best foreign film. Since then this movie has become fairly well-known in both the States and Europe. However, audiences have greater difficulty registering the name of its director, who is probably the most famous contemporary Afghan filmmaker. One may well ask what else the Golden Globe was celebrating 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? Was it a celebration of Afghanistan’s return to the ranks of the great cultural nations? Or a fresh start for Afghan cinema?



    Seeing the end of the Taliban as a ‘year zero’ for Afghan cinema would be inaccurate in the light of the country’s history. In 1983 the International Film Guide described Afghanistan as ‘a country which used to produce a revolution as often as a film’. A state of emergency as an everyday (cinematic) situation, and a trauma for which both outsiders and Afghans were to blame.

    Censorship prevailed for decades, whether after Daud’s coup in 1973, the Russian occupation, the Mujaheddin 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 in which he played himself. His family and ministers were also forced to reconstruct actual events in this both horrifying and ludicrous chapter in the history of Afghan film. Today’s trend is for docu-soaps about heroes and rogues, whereas in the past cinema was a matter of life and death. Belonging as they did to the intelligentsia, filmmakers at that time were threatened, imprisoned, and tortured. The impulse towards self-censorship survives up to the present day. Worse still: ‘Even now films in Afghanistan have to submit to censorship,’ according to Norbert Spitz, director of the Kabul Goethe-Institut. As the newly-evolved media landscape demonstrates, political issues are now treated with relative liberality. The areas of friction include dialogue and images which spark off controversy over the prevalent interpretation of Islam and its tradition in Afghanistan. In Atiq Rahimi’s Chak o Chakestar [Earth and Ashes], a woman, traumatised by war, runs into shot completely naked. 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.
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    By Martin Gerner

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