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Afghanistan Needs Producers, Not Pity

Award-winning helmer says nation is brimming with talent, but its film industry needs support and structure

Afghan filmmaker Siddiq Barmak (pictured) won a Golden Globe for his first movie, 2004’s “Osama” — the tale of a teenage girl who pretends to be a boy to get a job and support her widowed mother and grandmother — and gained further acclaim with 2008’s “Opium War.” Six years later, he is finally preparing his third feature. The reason for the delay, he says, is not just a shortage of money, but also the local entertainment industry’s lack of experienced producers.

That void means Barmak must go abroad for coin and collaboration.

“There is an absence of producers in Afghanistan,” Barmak says. “On ‘Osama’ (beside myself), my producers came from Japan’s NHK (and) from Ireland. When I did ‘Opium War’ I found my producers in South Korea, France and Japan.”

Though Barmak circulates easily, and is quick to make new acquaintances, he regrets having to depend so much on funding from others. The director says it took a combination of friends and filmmakers from Russia, Tajikistan, India and Iran to make “Opium War,” a black comedy about two American soldiers who crash their helicopter in the Afghan desert and find themselves at the mercy of the elements and an eclectic family of Afghan opium farmers.

Barmak calls Afghanis “global citizens of cinema,” a phrase coined by his friend, Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who also provided coin and camera equipment for “Opium War.”

“Before the Taliban took power, the Afghan government had a five-year plan to make a certain number of features and documentaries each year. And they’d finance them,” Barmak says.

But, he adds, when the United States and other Western forces built a new government and established an open-market economy after 2001-02, Afghanistan ceased film funding, and producers were left to track down money for their pics from private sources.

“Since 2001 and the collapse of the Taliban, we’ve had a new law for mass media, which supports freedom of speech,” Barmak says. “We have 45 private TV channels in Kabul alone. So we have had a wave of filmmakers who are making very good documentaries, shorts and animation.”

While content creators are flourishing in the country, Barmak notes that young filmmakers are using their own funds to finance their shorts. “There is scarcely enough to make a good long feature. That’s why I’m going around the world trying to find producers.”

Barmak admits to being a little jealous of friend Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian helmer who is able to get money for his films from Iran’s banking system since his film “A Separation” won the foreign-language film Oscar in 2011. “We dream of having just $250,000,” Barmak says.

The Afghan helmer is now working on “Eclipse,” a love story about a 10-year-old boy and a lost girl who criss-cross battle lines to collect the bodies of dead fighters and sell them back to the Taliban.

He says financing for his latest project seems most likely to come from Russian and German sources, and that he hopes to shoot by March.

To Barmak, his nation is still a land without a global identity, despite its history and strategic importance, with a cultural foot in South Asia and a political one in the Middle East. He says he strives to make films that will play anywhere.

“I’m trying to explain myself and our stories,” he says. “Pain is not restricted to one country.”

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