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The NFB’s Mission to Digitize Afghan Film Footage

The Uncovering of a Legacy – Part 2

by Mariam Habib, Kaveh Daneshmand

The negatives contain footage rich in culture and language from the country’s many provinces, as well as images of the many monuments, statues and structures that were destroyed in the Taliban’s carnage. Despite the years of weather, heat and rain damage, the archived footage can now be restored and digitized – a project being taken on by the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal.

The Forbidden Reel showcases archived footage and explores the making of the cold-war era Afghan films that were rediscovered. Afghan-Canadian filmmaker Ariel Nasr interviews filmmaker Latif Ahmadi, the founder of Afghan Film, Siddiq Barmak, one of the most prominent directors of cold-war era Afghanistan, and actress Yasmin Yarmal and producer/director Ibrahim Arify. The documentary takes its audience into the journeys of each storyteller, to examine how they captured and shaped Afghanistan’s cultural heritage during an era of instability, struggle and social and political transformation.

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Importantly, Nasr explores how Ahmadi and Barmak – two best friends who made films from opposing political perspectives – regularly interacted and negotiated with political figures in order to complete their projects. As a champion of Farsi films, FCC recognizes that the intersection of filmmaking and politics is one that is particularly relevant in Farsi filmmaking and that political boundaries create challenges for filmmakers today.

Currently in production in Afghanistan, the documentary is being co-produced by Montreal-based Loaded Pictures (Sergio Kirby, Producer) and the National Film Board of Canada’s Quebec Atlantic Studio (Katherine Baulu, Producer).

Nasr is working with the National Film Board of Canada to restore and digitize 18 Afghan films – a project with an estimated cost of $250 000. They have been able to digitize 6 of the films – as they fell far short on funds.

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One of the NFB’s 5 key goals is digital transformation. The organization extends this mandate globally, as they seek to strengthen ties with its partners around the world, including Afghan Film. The NFB became involved in the project in 2017. When the then-president of the organization Ibrahim Arify arrived at the NFB studio in Montreal, a visit aimed at knowledge-sharing and exchange of expertise, he brought with him some of the footage hoping to be restored.

NFB Commissioner Claude Joli-Coeur commended the heroism of Ahmad Shah Sediqqi and his colleagues: “Afghanistan has a remarkably rich and diverse national cinema. The vision and courage that have gone into safeguarding this legacy is really something historic in the annals of film preservation, and the NFB is honoured to be part of it—doing whatever we can to assist our Afghan colleagues in taking the next steps to preserve and share their nation’s priceless audiovisual legacy (National Film Board of Canada).”

The story of The Forbidden Reel and the journeys of Latif Ahmadi and Siddiq Barmak raise important questions for FCC. Given the particular challenges faced by Farsi filmmakers, what can we do as a global organization to reduce boundaries and promote Farsi filmmaking? One of our top priorities at FCC is promoting co-production opportunities. Filmmaking is a borderless endeavour with a global reach. By increasing opportunities for Farsi filmmakers to work with producers from around the world, we can enable filmmakers to circumvent political boundaries without compromising important elements of their stories.

From the impact of Afghan films at Berlinale, we see that preserving culture through the film is one way to promote Farsi cinema and increase co-production opportunities. While restoring and digitizing the footage is an expensive endeavour, FCC believes that the project is important in the mission to preserve Afghan cinematic history. FCC continues to work with its partners around the world to lend support to projects like this.

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