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Rehabilitating Afghan cine scene

October 11, 2012


Scene from the 2004 Afghan film 'Osama'- AP Photo

BUSAN: Afghan director Siddiq Barmak remembers watching helplessly as reel upon reel of film footage was taken outside and burned in the street after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan.

He also remembers the effort it took to save other films from destruction after the extremist forces marched into Kabul in 1996.

Barmak and other Afghan filmmakers this week warned that efforts to save Afghanistan's film history were being undermined by government inaction and concerns about security ahead of a planned 2014 withdrawal of US-led forces. “What is worrying all of us now is that the Taliban, the people who tried to destroy our cinema, are being talked about again as becoming part of the government,” said Barmak.

“We have seen what they can do and cannot forget this,” he said. Barmak was joined by director Latif Ahmadi and producer Ibrahim Arify, who heads the government-backed Afghan Film organisation.

The filmmakers attended the Busan Film Festival this week for a screening of an Afghanistan National Film Archive programme.

The six films that comprise The Rise from the Ashes include examples of Barmak and Ahmadi's work, all of which were saved from the wrath of the Taliban. But many more reels remain in need of urgent repair, they say, with time taking its toll on old film stock.

“The situation is critical,” said Barmak, winner of a Golden Globe award in 2004 for Osama.

“We need help or our country's film history, which is also the history of the country and its people, will be lost”.

Barmak was working at Afghan Film, the state-backed company overseeing the national film industry and archive, when the Taliban began to implement its strict rule and attempted to destroy old film footage.

Cinemas across the country were closed and the screening of films banned under the Taliban's enforcement of Sharia law.

Were it not for the quick intervention of archive staff, the building's entire contents of feature films and more than 8,000 hours of newsreel footage dating back to before the Second World War would have been lost.

Saved by the dark

Usually light is needed to bring cinema to life, but in this case it was darkness that came to the rescue, said Barmak.

“After the Taliban came, Kabul was hit by power cuts. So staff told (the Taliban) that the floor where the archives were kept was being kept dark to save power,” he explained.

“Then they boarded up the doors and sealed off the area. That saved everything we have left today but we still lost more than 5,000 hours of film.” Afghan Film began the labourious process of sorting through its archives and assessing the damage in 2003, after the Taliban were ousted by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

But a lack of support from the new government complicated efforts, the directors said. While international aid has streamed into Afghanistan over the past decade, they claim little of it was channeled into the art, culture and film industries that would help reflect and curate the nation's history.

“Luckily some of the film was moved overseas and we have a restoration programme ongoing with France's INA [the French national audiovisual institute],” said Arify. “But we are facing a serious crisis as we have nowhere near enough money to restore and save all of what we have. That's why we are here in Busan asking for help, from anyone who will listen to us.”—

“It soon might all be lost”

Afghan cinema has a rich history dating back to the early 1900s when the country's then-royal family first brought projectors and newsreels back from their international travels.

The country's first feature film Love and Friendship was produced in 1946 and by the early 1960s, Afghan Film had begun to educate film students and support local productions.

Many young Afghan filmmakers of the time took up cinema studies in Russia, Iran and Pakistan, due to the lack of formal film education opportunities in their homeland.

Barmak was one, heading to Moscow where he studied cinema at the Moscow Film Institute.

He was in Moscow when Russian forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979 but had returned to Kabul by the time the Taliban took power after the Soviet withdrawal. He fled into Pakistan before returning to make the country's first post-Taliban film Osama - about a girl who disguises herself as a boy - in 2003.

Arify said there were many feature films in urgent need of repair, and that the nation risked losing crucial documentation of its history if newsreels belonging to Afghan Film were left to deteriorate.

“Everyone grew up watching these newsreels, they told the people's stories and the country's stories and they kept people informed about what had happened in the country.” Barmak said the Busan festival had given the group a chance to plead their case to the world ahead of the planned 2014 withdrawal of troops from the war against Taliban insurgents