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Aboozar Amini on Risking Death for ‘Kabul, City in the Wind’

IDFA’s opening-night film put its director in direct danger from suicide bombers –which only made him more determined

The shadow of death hangs heavy over Aboozar Amini’s feature debut “Kabul, City in the Wind”, and yet, paradoxically, it is a film that celebrates life and even marks the birth of a significant new talent. Freewheeling in tone and style, yet meticulously framed and bathed in melancholy hues, Amini’s film tells two stories about three of the Afghan capital’s denizens. One, Abas, is a bus driver, whose dilapidated bus miraculously still navigates the city’s rickety streets; the other two are the teenage Afshin and his little brother Benjamin, who are both prematurely thrown into the world of adulthood when their father suddenly leaves.

The film has a mesmeric quality that fascinated Orwa Nyrabia, the new artistic director at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), who selected the film for his inaugural opening night. Nyrabia said, “What Aboozar is doing, in my view, is similar to what the Iranian New Wave – let’s call it – were doing. When we first started watching Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf and that generation of Iranian filmmakers, people thought those films were strange: they were too slow, too contemplative, very niche. And then it became a phenomenon that was quite special. I think the world of documentary is, so far, not as open and tolerant to differences as the world of fiction is. So we need to challenge ourselves, and here is a filmmaker who does that, making this beautifully filmed and constructed depiction of daily life in Kabul, a depiction of life in between suicidal bombings.

“It’s a beautiful, moving experience of a film,” Nyrabia continued. “It does not sensationalize or sentimentalize the situation of the country, but, instead, transports us to that place and invites us to experience people’s normal lives in it. There’s rhythm, and there’s visual, aesthetic ambition, and then there’s this other really important element, which is the filmmaker himself: he’s from Afghanistan, he came to the Netherlands as a refugee when he was a teenager, studied film here, and then he went back and started making films in Kabul. So the film is a tribute to immigration. It’s a tribute to being citizens of the world, not citizens of whatever nation we are born into.”

Variety spoke with Amini the day after the film’s world premiere on Wednesday.

What was the starting point for “Kabul, City in the Wind”?
The idea is actually quite old, but I think that if an idea doesn’t let you go for years, then you should make that film. It was born back in 2009, when I visited Kabul for the first time after many years. The city had changed. I arrived there as a total stranger, filled with clichéd images from the media, and I felt lost. There were two worlds there: on one side, the big American army vehicles in a row, going right through the crowded city center, and on the other side were ordinary people who were working hard to take care of their families. I chose to follow the ordinary people. My feeling is that humans all around the world are the same.

How did you find your subjects?
It was very simple. I was trying to capture life, instead of war and horror. Life is everywhere: we only need to open our eyes and listen. Of course, the film happens to take place in a war-torn city where death is present in every corner, and can happen suddenly, caused by a bomb blast or a rocket. But more than that, there’s life in between those bombs. That is what I appreciate more. How do people live and survive between the bomb blasts? It’s like the silence between the notes of a piano concert.

What was the shooting process like?
We spent nearly three years making this film. Each time I was there in Kabul, one or two suicide bomb-blasts would happen, either 300m from me or sometimes only 100m. In July 2016 I was filming in Deh Mazang Square when the two suicide bombs exploded among the Hazara demonstrators. They were shouting for peace and equality.

Were you or your subjects ever in any danger?
Danger is inevitable in Kabul. And my protagonists and I were continuously close to suicide bombs. But cinema is life for me, and I do what I have to do. If my story takes me to Kabul, I go, no matter how dangerous it is. The concept of danger became irrelevant. The more aggressive the extremist group who were slaughtering these people were, the more motivated I got. I felt I was on a mission to bring [my protagonists’] stories to the world.

What kind of relationships did you form with your protagonists, both as a human being and a filmmaker?
The kids are like my younger brothers. I miss them, and they miss me. This was right from the moment we met each other. They are so familiar to me and they remind me of my childhood. I can’t wait to take them to a screening near them to watch the film together. Benjamin will say, “Hey, look, Afshin it is really a film!” With Abas, it was a bit difficult in the beginning. He didn’t trust me and I didn’t trust him. He is an ex-soldier from the civil war, and the country is in extreme poverty. My camera was worth more than his bus, so anything was possible. But gradually we built a friendship. I met his wife and his daughters. After a year, he told me, “Aboozar, you know all that matters from now on for me is that your film should be completed.” I realized then that he now trusted me.

What were the challenges of filming in Kabul?
People have been misled by the media for the past 17 years. This was the biggest challenge for me – to make people understand that what I’m looking for is not what they are used to seeing in the media. If they see that someone is filming, they either think it is a Hollywood production that can just throw dollars in the air or it’s someone from an NGO [charity] looking for misery. It was tough for me to tell them that that was not what I was looking for. What I’m looking for is a simple, true way of living. Stay yourself. Most of the time they couldn’t understand.

How did you structure the film in the edit?
I’m an editor myself, I’ve edited several feature-length documentaries, but because I directed it myself I knew it wouldn’t work if I edited the film myself as well. I’m so attached to every scene, which then wouldn’t allow me to ruthlessly cut and take it out. I needed someone less familiar with Afghanistan and that environment to look at the material with a fresh and neutral eye. I felt we should avoid all the topics about that geographical place and grab the human stories, which are universal and the same everywhere. I think we succeeded.

It’s a very beautiful film – what are your influences as a filmmaker, and what were you looking for, aesthetically?
Simplicity is a keyword for this film. As Dostoevsky states, “Nothing is more fantastic than reality itself.” This is what I love about this film – nothing has been forced. Everything is there, and I only frame it following my heart and intuition, taking what speaks to me. This goes hand in hand with your own imagination. I grew up with Japanese cinema from the ’50s, right after the second world war. I think wartime countries, or post-war countries, should watch those films from Japan. They all are masterpieces; they show the demons inside people and how precious life is – life itself, which was forgotten throughout the war in Japan and the world.

What would you like audiences to take away from the film?
To feel the lives of other human beings, in this case the people of Kabul. To feel related to people who live in another country and under different conditions. To feel the beauty and dignity of each life – a life that deserves respect.

What does the film mean to you?
It is my first full-length documentary and I am in the process of discovering and developing my own cinematic language. This one feels very close to what I consider as my aesthetics of storytelling.

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