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Afghanistan film slate growing

'Opium War,' Secret' among upcoming releases

LONDON — You wait years for a film from Afghanistan and then a clutch turn up all at the same time.

Afghan helmer Siddiq Barmak is busy editing “Opium War,” his follow-up to 2003 debut “Osama.” Pic tells the story of two American soldiers lost in Afghanistan who come across a family living in a tank.

Horace Shansab’s “Zolykha’s Secret” is an ultra-low-budget pic about a rural Afghan family’s struggle to survive during the final days of the Taliban regime, and Atiq Rahimi, whose “Earth and Ashes” received a special mention at the 2004 Cannes Film Fest, is midway through production on “The Man From Kabul.”

“There is a lot of activity in Afghanistan at the moment,” says Barmak from his Kabul editing suite. “A lot of TV channels here are offering young Afghan filmmakers a good beginning to make TV series and digitally shot films. A lot of people here believe in cinema now so it was not as difficult this time around as back in 2002 and 2003.”

Difficult is, of course, relative.

Barmak’s project was delayed a year after bad weather destroyed the poppy fields that he had specially grown. He had to get a permit from the Afghan government to grow the poppies in the first place, since such cultivation is illegal in the country.

Similarly, Rahimi’s shoot has been delayed after his set was damaged by monsoons. He hopes to resume filming by the end of the year.

While it may be unsurprising to discover the numerous tribulations Afghan helmers have faced in getting their cinematic visions to the bigscreen, foreign helmers are also discovering the challenges posed by filmmaking in the country.

In January, Bollywood pic “Kabul Express” provoked an outcry from Hazara tribal leaders after the pic, which was lensed in Afghanistan and tells story of two Indian journos who come to Kabul to cover the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, accused the Hazaras of being “the most dangerous tribe in Afghanistan.”

The Afghan Information and Culture Ministry forbade the sale and exhibition of “Kabul Express,” but pirate copies are available on the black market.

In protest, Afghan TV banned the Indian pics and songs that are hugely popular in Afghanistan for 72 hours.

That’s nothing compared to what Iranian helmer Samira Makhmalbaf faced while lensing “The Two-Legged Horse” in Afghanistan when she and family members narrowly avoided death in a March 27 bomb attack.

“It was surprising that it happened because they were filming in one of the safest parts of Afghanistan, in the north,” says Barmak, who borrowed cameras and equipment from Samira’s father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, to lense his sophomore pic.

“I’m sure that (Afghanistan-set) ‘The Kite Runner’ will help make Afghanistan a center of attention again,” he says. “After the invasion in 2002, a lot of people forgot about the country. I hope cinema can be a bridge to connect Afghanistan to the world.”

Shansab adds: “The world needs to understand much better a place like Afghanistan, and a place like Afghanistan needs to look in the mirror and understand itself much more intimately. I know it’s a daunting task, but, ultimately, we’ll just have to tell our stories and allow imagination to take over.”