Afghan filmmakers fear for their lives, security of archives


At the end of last week Sahraa Karimi, an Afghan filmmaker, wrote a passionate open letter to “all film communities in the world” highlighting the current state of Afghanistan. “The Taliban massacred our people, kidnapped children, killed a woman in the name of dress, tortured and killed one of our favorite comedians and killed a prehistoric poet,” reads one part. “They killed people associated with the government, some of us were hanged in public and they displaced millions of families. After fleeing these provinces, the families are in camps in Kabul, where they are in a desperate situation.

She spoke about children dying from lack of milk, Afghan families living in unsanitary conditions and looting camps. “It is a humanitarian crisis,” she wrote, “and yet the world is silent.” She followed him with a self-shot video: the camera is shaking, she is in the street and her eyes are overflowing with fear. She also shared a video on twitter, where she is on the verge of tears, saying, “Hey people of this great world, please don’t be silent. They’re coming to kill us.

Karimi remained in secret; his location is unknown and an email sent to him by this reporter went unanswered. His friends in India are worried about his safety. “If they find her, they will certainly kill her,” said one; the ‘they’ refers to the Taliban.

For Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, archivist and restorer of Indian films, Karimi’s online messages brought back memories. In December 2019, he received a call from Kabul, days before his Mumbai-based Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) – a non-profit organization dedicated to archiving, preserving and restoring heritage. film industry from India – about to organize a workshop in Hyderabad. Ten Afghans were to join the program, including archivists and students. But they had run into a frustrating roadblock at the last moment: they were having trouble getting visas. Some of the participants had past ties to the Taliban; many had never traveled outside the country; and the visa officer, unaware of film preservation and restoration, had more than one reason to be suspicious.

To get around such a politically charged situation, Dungarpur had an unlikely solution. He got in touch with the Indian ambassador in Kabul and sent him a video on WhatsApp: of Amitabh Bachchan stressing the importance of preserving and restoring films and urging people to apply for the workshop. Bachchan, who had traveled to Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif to shoot Khuda gawah in the early 1990s, is a popular figure in the country. “In less than four minutes – the length of Bachchan’s video call – the visa officer was convinced. This is how the FHF’s relationship with Afghan filmmakers and archivists began, which continues today.

Karimi was supposed to be part of the delegation but gave up at the last moment. “When I met the delegates in Hyderabad, I was struck by their sincerity, drive and curiosity. We found the commitment of the Afghans to saving their heritage to be incredible, ”he said. There was a sense of urgency among them. “They knew they had lost so much. They knew they were far behind, ”adds Dungarpur. He noticed a sense of hope among them – “they were looking forward to it”. “Afghan cinema was trying to revitalize itself,” he says. “Archiving had found its place. They were about to digitize much of their material. And that was something that’s all now – I just feel where it’s going to go, what’s going to happen?

The team was headed by a woman. “My conversations were with three strong women who led the charge and started the workshop,” says Dungarpur.

A poster for ‘What We Left Unfinished’.

One of them was Mariam Ghani – the daughter of the last Afghan president, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani – a filmmaker, visual artist and social activist whose first feature documentary, What we left unfinished (2019), told the story of five incomplete Afghan films shot during the country’s communist regime, from 1978 to 1992. It premiered at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2019. Five months later, it premiered was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato, in Bologna, a renowned film restoration festival. This is where Dungarpur first met Mariam, and their interaction sparked the idea of ​​inviting Afghan candidates to the workshop. (In a cruel irony, the documentary saw a U.S. theatrical release less than two weeks ago.)

ThreadGhani’s email also went unanswered.

It has never been easy to be an Afghan filmmaker. The state-run Afghan Film, for example, was only created in 1968. The first color films did not enter the country until the early 1980s. Filmmakers struggled to find their voice over the next decade, especially during the civil wars, but something more disastrous happened in 1996: the Taliban came to power. It banned all forms of popular entertainment, including movies, television, and music. He destroyed cinemas, burned film stocks. But some Afghans cared so much about the cinema that they risked their lives to save it.

Dungarpur heard one of these stories from a workshop participant. By 1996 Afghan archivists knew that the Taliban intended to destroy all available film reels, so they had identified and selected important films from the film archives – ranging from documentary footage from the 1920s to feature films produced by the film archive. State in the 1970s. They hid these reels in a small room in the Afghan Film building, covered them with wood, and painted them the same wall colors. They buried coils underground, hid some in false ceilings. When the Taliban raided the building, archivists handed over the unimportant film reels. The Taliban burned each of them, but looked no further.

Afghan archivists had managed to save 7,000 films totaling up to 32,000 hours of 16mm film and 8,000 hours of 35mm film. Hidden in their midst is a story of Afghanistan that few people know about: Farsi and Pashto language dramas telling stories of friendship, romance and Afghan culture. Documentary footage, ranging from the 1920s to the 1970s, depicts a peaceful Afghanistan, which has yet to be ravaged by Soviet invasion, civil wars or, of course, the Taliban regime.

Sahraa Karimi is an award-winning Afghan filmmaker. His 2009 feature film, Afghan women driving, a feminist documentary commenting on gender inequality in Afghanistan, has screened at film festivals around the world, garnering nearly two dozen awards. A decade later she made a fictional drama – Hava, Maryam, Ayesha, focused on the challenges faced by three pregnant Afghan women – which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for an Orizzonti Award. The same year, she became the first woman president of Afghan Film.

Since December 2019, after the FHF workshop, Dungarpur, participants and Afghan film archivists have continued to stay in touch. On December 30, 2019, in response to Dungarpur’s email, the same person who shared the 1996 Afghan Archivists’ Story informed him of plans to restore films in the country. “We want to restore and preserve these films and make them accessible to researchers and filmmakers,” wrote one participant, “showing our achievements to present and future generations.” In the past, the archive had encountered some restoration problems – regarding the laboratory, the digitization and the lack of professionals – “but now it is improved and well equipped”. She sounded optimistic. “We work on our collections in accordance with international standards such as the FIAF [International Federation of Film Archive] manuals. She hoped that “the archives could become a source of income for the Afghan government”.

By that time, all old copies of films had passed from Afghan film to the archives of the presidential palace. Over 36,000 hours of moving images – mostly historical films – had been entered into its database. The government had established a public relations office in mid-2018 that allowed people to access the archives through its website. Things were moving, plans were materializing – everything, after a very long time, was finally falling into place. With the Taliban taking over the palace, their fate is uncertain – fear is that all film reels will be destroyed and a precious part of Afghan history lost.

The above email exchange between the two parties illustrates the long relationship between the two film industries. A link that marked the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara (1931). While assisting Gulzar, Dungarpur discovered that the first song in Indian cinema, By De Khuda Ke Naam, was sung by an Afghan actor, WM Khan. Superstar Dilip Kumar has his roots in the country, as have a few others. Movies such as Kabuliwala (1961), Zanjeer (1973) and Khuda gawah (1992), among several others, featured Afghan characters in major roles (played by Bollywood personalities: Bachchan, Pran, Balraj Sahni) – the Bachchan star was even shot dead in the country, and the Afghan president At the time, Mohammad Najibullah, a fan of the superstar, assured him of Afghan Air Force security during the 18-day shoot.

Indian films were massively popular before the Taliban crackdown. “When I saw Mariam’s film [featuring footage of old Afghan films]”Says Dungarpur,” It reminded me of India in the 80s and 90s. It was like our Masala movies. ”Dungarpur adds that video shows were“ very popular ”in Kabul.“ People told me how they used to sneak into videos even in the days of the mujahedin. The mujahedin themselves watched a lot of movies. Bollywood films. ”

So, it did not surprise Dungarpur that the Afghans showed a sustained interest in the FHF workshops. A few of them even attended online last year. Less than a month and a half ago, even in perilous times, the FHF participant emailed Dungarpur to inquire about this. “I obviously understand that the COVID-19 situation may not allow for face-to-face interaction, [but] would there be an online session this year? In the same e-mail, the participant detailed the terrible “security situation” in the country. Yet one of its last lines read: “We are very optimistic and hopeful for the future of Afghanistan.

Dungarpur also received an email from a professional in the presidential palace archives three days ago. “The Taliban promise to respect human rights, not to take revenge or torture anyone, but people have their own problems and fear death,” the last lines read. “Unfortunately, I have no information on the Archives. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Hope everything is going well, as they promised. I hope he will be saved from destruction. Please pray for us that things will improve.


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