THE RISE OF AFGHAN FILMS
by Felix Cheong
Theyre a force to be reckoned with. They take no prisoners and theyre on their way.
Brace yourself for an onslaught of films made in war-ravaged Afghanistan. They may not be Hollywood-slick, boasting marquee names and bloated budgets. But if Osama, this years Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, is anything to go by, Afghan films will be the critics darling for a while yet.
Directed by 41-year-old Siddiq Barmak, Osama is not about the worlds most wanted terrorist but a true story based on the trials and alienation of an Afghan mother. With her husband and brother dead, she must work to survive but unfortunately shes bound by a Taliban decree that forbids women to leave their homes without a male "legal companion." Out of desperation, she disguises her 12-year-old daughter as a boy.
At once a coming-of-age yarn that yanks at your heartstrings, Osama is also an eloquent allegory about the human spirit thriving under the most trying of circumstances. What has made critics sit up and take notice is that its the first film shot entirely in Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban regime. This in itself is newsworthy, but whats remarkable is how director Barmak had put his work together despite the scarcity of resources.
For during its terrifying reign, the Taliban had all but destroyed the countrys film industry. In addition to banning film and television, it had ordered all equipment and stock of films - numbering more than 3,000 - at the Afghan Film Institute to be burnt. So Barmak, who used to head the institute but was forced into exile when the Taliban came to power, literally had to start from scratch.
Small wonder then hes now being feted as a phoenix-like artist rising from the ashes of adversity. Last year, for instance, UNESCO awarded Barmak the Fellini Silver Medal for safeguarding Afghanistans cultural heritage.
Suddenly, all things Afghan are in vogue. Columbia Pictures is producing a war film, touted as a cross between Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Black Hawk Down (2002), about the battle for the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Afghanistans most loved comedian, Haji Kamran, is starring in his first Hollywood motion picture, with independent filmmaker Wali Razaqi calling the shots. Even Bollywood has jumped onto the bandwagon with a co-production showcasing Afghan and Indian talents. Film critic Kent Jones has characterized these developments as "a mad urge among Westerners to purge ourselves of our carefree, pre-September 11 ignorance."
Reading between the lines of his comment, its clear that what pushes this wave of interest through is not just curiosity about a region once cut off from the rest of the world, but also a political agenda. This probably explains why just three days after Osama won the Golden Globe, the White House held a screening of the film specially for the First Lady, with the wife of the Afghan ambassador in attendance. Call it by any name but this is, at its heart, diplomacy by way of cinema.
Indeed, if you flip through the pages of film history, youll notice how critical attention of a countrys cinematic output often converges with its efforts to open up to the West.
In the 1950s, for instance, Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa garnered international fame and fans against the backdrop of postwar Japan finding its feet under American dictates and direction. In the mid-1990s, critical acclaim of Vietnamese films, like The Scent of Green Papaya (1994) and Cyclo (1996), ran parallel with news the US was reestablishing diplomatic ties with its old enemy. And over the past six years, in the light of Iran holding its first democratic elections in 1997, Iranian films have stolen the limelight, with works like Taste of Cherry (1998) and Baran (2001) sweeping festival awards at Cannes, Montreal, Berlin and Venice.
Its therefore no coincidence that Afghanistan, rebuilding itself under Western eyes, is in the viewfinders frame. With cinemas reopening in Kabul so deprived were its citizens for entertainment that the first movie shown there apparently caused a riot interest in filmmaking is picking up. And soon, coming to a theater near you, will be many stories, charged with honesty and pain, about the Afghan people that will move you as surely as Children of Heaven did in 1999.