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Afghanistan: Filmmakers Put On Brave Face As They Struggle To Emerge From Taliban's Shadow

Afghanistan's film industry is starting a slow recovery after being banned for five years under the Taliban regime. Filmmakers are looking abroad for financing, but the problems are profound.

Kabul, 20 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan filmmakers have no choice but to look abroad for support as they try to revive their dormant craft. The state budget, strained by trying to rebuild the country after more than 20 years of conflict, has no money to support the arts.

That's the task facing Siddiqullah Barmak, the head of Afghan Films, the state organization in charge of promoting and producing movies. He's an energetic man in his early 40s who appears undaunted by the task of resuscitating an industry from scratch.

On this day, he's running late, explaining that he had to see off a group of German filmmakers at the Kabul airport. Contacts like these, he said, are especially important for the possibility of foreign investment they represent. "State budget? No, actually [it has no money], unfortunately. There are so many problems [there]. We have only [enough money] for the salaries of our workers here and staff. [That's] why I am trying to find some other sponsors to make films, from friends, countries like the European countries, America, and some Afghans from the United States. They promised to come here and make a film," Barmak said.

All of the arts suffered under the fundamentalist Taliban regime, but none more so than the visual arts, such as painting, photography, and film. The Taliban placed strong prohibitions on physical representations of any kind.

An entire generation of Afghan filmmakers, many schooled in Moscow during the 1980s, ceased making films or left the country. Cinemas across the country were closed.

The building housing Afghan Films speaks volumes about the current condition of the film industry. It's an arty-looking modern structure built in the 1960s whose style of architecture recalls happier times. Today, however, its aluminum facade is riddled with bullet holes. A dusty showcase in the lobby displays forgotten awards from film festivals 20 years ago in Bulgaria and Uzbekistan. The offices themselves are dark and depressing. There appears to be just one functioning telephone.

But Barmak says there are positive signs. He points to private groups like Kabul Film and Ariana Film, which have begun using relatively inexpensive video technology and are finding support abroad.

Four short films and two documentaries are in the works, and Afghan Films intends to show them around the country in the coming months. Filmmakers here, as elsewhere, will have to find an audience if they are to be successful. That will not be easy.

The Afghan film market is small. The country's population is sizable at around 25 million people, but there are relatively few commercial cinemas. An average ticket price of around $0.15 does not generate a lot of cash to fund further projects. Domestic filmmakers will also have to compete with inexpensive and wildly popular imports from India.

On a typical afternoon this week at the Park cinema in central Kabul, the grounds are crowded with mostly young men in their teens and 20s. The show on this day is "Ashaant," a 1993 action film from India starring well-known actor Akshay Kumar. Tickets are not sold in advance. Customers crowd the doors in order to rush to the ticket window when the cinema opens.

Abdulqader is one of the hopefuls, but he took a minute to talk about why he likes Indian films. "The people of Afghanistan have been interested in Indian films for a long time. We like other movies, as well -- be they American or French or whatever -- which teach us a lesson. Since the Indian culture reflects the same culture as ours, the people like them. The people like those parts that attract their attention, like the comic, tragic, and fighting parts," Abdulqader said.

Just before showtime, the doors fly open and the customers rush in. The scene is chaotic as kids climb on top of one another to reach the ticket window.

Back at the offices of Afghan Films, Barmak explained the lure of Indian films to Afghan moviegoers. "Our people like music, dancing, love, folk [stories], legends. And Indian films, they have these kinds of elements. There are so many tragedies. Our people like tragedies. Of course, they like comedy also. But I don't know why, maybe tragedy is included in their blood," Barmak said.

If Afghan film ever had a "golden age," it would probably be the 1980s during the Soviet occupation. Several good Afghan films were made at this time, although they were often marred by a heavy ideological or propagandistic stamp.

Nevertheless, Barmak said films from this time are still loved by the Afghan people. "[People] see [these films] and love these films because they see Afghan characters and Afghan situations -- some problems which they have. They find themselves in the films," Barmak said.

Afghanistan's film industry has a long way to go to even reach the level of the 1980s. Filmmakers acknowledge this but point hopefully to Iran -- another country that has emerged from religious orthodoxy -- as a source of inspiration.

Iranian films in recent years have won international acclaim for their visual beauty, craftsmanship, and willingness to tackle difficult themes. It's a model Afghan filmmakers would like to follow. "Iranian movies now are becoming famous for their filmmaking production [techniques] in the world. They made a lot of good films. They are creating a new language for film and styles. And they use the same legends, the same folk [tales] and the same language that we use," Barmak said.

Barmak points to a diagram on his office wall: an architect's rendering of a vast, futuristic film studio that was to have been built in Kabul in the 1980s. The diagram is complete with sketches of happy people and fancy cars. The studio was never built for cost and security reasons.

Now, it resembles nothing if not a poster for a science-fiction movie.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.