The Oscars: Afghanistan’s Robust Film Industry Revival
By: Yuling Chen
Last week, FCC took a look through big moments in the history of the Oscars for the Iranian film industry. This week, we switch our focus to the gems of Afghan filmmakers, whose work and lives are challenging the very conceptions the rest of the world holds against them.
The Afghan film industry has been torn by regional conflicts from as early as 1979 (the beginning of the Soviet occupation). Up until two decades ago, only after the Taliban were forced out of Kabul, did Afghan movies have the chance to compete at the Oscars. Afghan Film, a state organization, has been crucial in producing and preserving past films, and establishing a name on an international level. Many directors, like the ones listed in this blog, have returned to Kabul to support and train young filmmakers in the country. As the industry continues to build steam, FCC traces the long and winding road of the Afghan film industry revival through selected Oscar entries.
FireDancer (Jawed Wassel and Ashok Nanda, 2002)
In 2003, Afghanistan submitted its first film, Jawed Wassel’s FireDancer (which wasn’t nominated). A young Afghan refugee seeks a sense of belonging in New York City; the story is redolent of the director’s past when he struggled to find roots in America. The release of FireDancer was shadowed by a tragedy: Wassel was murdered by his producer (who later admitted to xenophobic motivations) over business disputes, thus leaving the film without its originally-intended ending.
Osama (Siddiq Barmak, 2003)
Osama was Afghanistan’s submission to the 2004 Oscars, however the film was not nominated that year. Siddiq Barmak took inspiration from a true story about a pre-teen girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to find work and support her family during the Taliban rule. Barmak gained funding and support from acclaimed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh, 1996) to make the film.
When Barmak was five years old, he watched Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture Oscar winner in 1963) in a Kabul theatre, and it fueled his obsession with making movies. Then, in 1996, after the capital of Afghanistan was ransacked by Taliban soldiers, Barmak was accused of espionage after the soldiers mistook his movie projector for a radio transmitter. Barmak explained what it was. The soldier contemplated his words for a moment, but declared the movie projector worse than a radio: he put a bullet through the projector.
Post-Taliban, Barmak ran Afghan Film and the Afghan Children Education Movement to spread literacy and the arts. After the success of Osama, the child actors and crew members rebuilt their lives, returning to school and to work in culture.
Buzkashi Boys (Sam French [Afghan Film Project]), 2011)
Buzkashi Boys was nominated for Best Short Film category in 2013. The Canadian-Afghan producer, Ariel Nasr, co-founded the Afghan Film Project in 2010 with director Sam French. Shot entirely in Kabul, the film is centered around two boys whose ambitions for upward mobility ignites their passion for Buzkashi, a ferocious national sport where horse riders gallop over wild landscapes.
Making a film in Kabul was not easy: logistics had to be solved ahead of time. Nasr would have tea with government officials to negotiate approval and passes for filming. French brought in western production teams, coaching Afghan trainees on the job. This process opened a new path for modern filmmakers in Afghanistan and made it possible for them to work and develop dynamic skills.
The Patience Stone (Atiq Rahimi, 2012)
Afghanistan’s national entry to the Oscars in 2013 was Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone (which wasn’t nominated). Born in Kabul, Atiq Rahimi fled to France during the Soviet occupation. He walked nine days and nights to first reach Pakistan, and sought asylum in a French Embassy. He eventually became an award-winning author (2008 Prix Goncourt) and filmmaker (2004 Prix Un Certain Regard, Cannes). A few years ago, he set up a writer’s house in Kabul to foster the talent of young artists.
During the fundamentalist wars, Rahimi witnessed women trapped in silence and being punished for speaking out. The title of the movie is a reference to a Persian myth: a patience stone allows one to confide in it until it bursts. In the film, a woman is able to talk frankly about the truth of her sexuality to her comatose husband.
Rona, Azim’s Mother (Jamshid Mahmoudi, 2018)
Rona, Azim’s Mother was submitted to the 2019 Oscars, but was not nominated. As an Afghan refugee in Iran, Jamshid Mahmoudi made a film revealing the invisible life of the refugee community in Tehran. In the film, a son (Azim) who works as a night-shift labourer, has to make a decision for his ill mother. She needs a kidney transplant and it is up to Azim to overcome the legal obstacles around kidney donations between citizens and émigrés. The film was first shown at Busan and won the Kim Ji-seok award (together with the Chinese movie The Rib) at the esteemed festival.
Hava, Maryam, Ayesha (Sahraa Karimi, 2019)
This year, Hava, Maryam, Ayesha, another co-production between Afghanistan and Iran, directed by Sahraa Karimi (a second-generation refugee in Iran), was selected as the national entry. In the film, the lives of three women from different social strata are complicated by pregnancies. They each deal with their problems differently, reflecting on their unique backgrounds and communities.
Karimi travelled to many cities and villages to uncover true stories from women. She distilled their accounts, inventing three titular characters for the film. Karimi’s filming process reflected her struggles as a filmmaker, with a focus on Afghanistan and its social conditions. Prior to the production of Hava, Maryam, Ayesha, the script had been rejected many times until Karimi decided she would make a go of it herself, shooting the film over 2 years while working for UNICEF. During the shoot, Karimi and her crew evaded explosions all over Kabul. Currently, she is serving as the first female president of Afghan Film and recently programmed a 10-day film festival showcasing 100 features to help develop local interest in Afghan films.
These filmmakers have injected new life into the Afghan industry and its visual culture. FCC believes there will be a more diverse representation of Farsi films in the years to come.