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Jenny Kleeman

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Afghanistan's Filmmakers

Posted: 27/04/2012 00:00

Every morning before Saba Sahar leaves for work, she loads her pistol, says her prayers and kisses her family goodbye, knowing she might never see them again. As Afghanistan's first female film director and one of its best-known actresses, Sahar is on the front line of the cultural battle for her country's future. She's prepared to risk her life so that Afghans can have home-grown entertainment.

It takes a great deal of luck to make it in any movie industry, but the stars of Afghanistan's screens need to be lucky every day of their lives - especially once they've become household names. In a country where people were once beaten to death for watching films, filmmakers are used to death threats.

Cinema was strictly forbidden during Taliban rule. The Taliban said moving images were heretical, and claimed watching films films led to "moral corruption". But after coalition forces invaded in 2001, Afghanistan's filmmakers started working again, emboldened by the new promises of freedom.

There's now a huge appetite for Afghan films, shot in the local language, telling stories that Afghans can relate to. Inspired by Bollywood and Hollywood action movies, they're outselling foreign imports in Kabul's DVD bazaars.

But even though their industry is no longer illegal, Afghanistan's filmmakers are still treated as outlaws by conservative Afghans and religious extremists. Anyone involved in film production - male or female - can be considered a legitimate target.

"I've received many death threats over the phone," Sahar tells me. "They say that even if the whole government is behind you we will still kill you. We will murder you in the street, in public."

Sahar is in the middle of shooting a television series on the Afghan police force for the national public service broadcaster. She works part-time for the Kabul police, and is happy to be their poster-woman. All of her six productions have been police dramas, and the heroine of each, played by Sahar, is always a strong female cop, fighting for justice and integrity.

Action scenes are particularly popular with Afghan audiences and Sahar is famous for doing her own stunts, sometimes riding a motorbike with no hands while shooting at terrorists, doing roundhouse taekwondo kicks in a full burkha, or carrying victims to safety over her shoulder in a fireman's lift. It's won her legions of fans - and scores of enemies.

"I want to show people there's more to Afghanistan than fighting, drugs and terrorism," she says. "If I die asking for my rights and inspiring other women to ask for theirs, then I'm ready to lose my life."

Sahar is fighting for a liberal, more open Afghanistan, but she knows she may have to flee the country in two years' time. Everyone I speak to in Kabul is convinced that the Taliban will inevitably have a slice of power as soon as foreign troops pull out in 2014.

"The kind of movies that are for entertainment are against Sharia law, and we are strongly against that," a Taliban spokesman tells me. "[Filmmakers] should be told what they are doing is wrong. If that doesn't stop them, we will punish them according to Sharia law." That punishment, he says, is death.

Salim Shaheen, Afghanistan's most prolific director and star of over 107 films, knows how dangerous filmmaking can be here. Eight members of his crew were killed when a rocket hit one of his sets in 1993. Their deaths have made him even more determined to carry on working. "I will continue in their name," he says. "I'll never give up making films."

Shaheen's action-packed movies are always a hit with audiences. When a new film is released, he can expect to thousands of DVDs a day. It's a rare example of successful private enterprise in an economy almost entirely dependent on aid money.

He has also received death threats, but knows his actresses live in far greater danger. His leading lady, 18 year-old Pari Ghulami, is one of the few Afghan women prepared to appear on screen. She's famous for her song and dance routines, which she often performs with her hair uncovered. "There are some people who don't like it," Ghulami says. "There are people who threaten me, but I ignore them because I love cinema so much."

"At the time I invited her to be an actress in my films, the international community promised us security," Shaheen says, simply. "It's the international community's responsibility to look after people like Pari. If something happens to her, they will be shamed."

The film industry flourished because Afghans were promised new freedoms by the west. Like so many others across Afghanistan, filmmakers thought those freedoms were here to stay. Now that foreign troops are preparing to pull out, the promises are evaporating. And the Taliban wants anyone who believed in them to pay a heavy price.

Jenny Kleeman's film for Unreported World, Lights, Camera, Death Threats, will be broadcast on Channel 4 at 7.30pm on 27 April. It can also be viewed online at channel4.com/unreportedworld

 

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