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Filmmaker Sahraa Karimi Defies Odds With Kabul-Set Drama ‘Hava, Maryam, Ayesha’

As the daughter of refugees who fled Afghanistan for a new life in Iran, Sahraa Karimi never lost touch with her parents’ homeland, whose culture and traditions were kept alive in her Tehran household. But as the years passed, and her pursuit of a career in filmmaking took her to Europe, the distance between Karimi and Afghanistan grew. Suddenly, the director was faced with a difficult choice.

“Somehow, from a storytelling perspective, I don’t belong to this part of the world,” she said, recalling her studies in Slovakia. “I belong to Afghanistan.”

Karimi returned to Kabul to shoot “Hava, Maryam, Ayesha,” her fiction feature debut that has its world premiere in the Horizons section of the Venice Film Festival. The film is produced by Katayoon Shahabi (Noori Pictures), who has helped introduce Iranian filmmakers such as Asghar Farhadi and Mohammad Rasoulof to the world.

Inspired by a longing to deepen her understanding of Afghanistan, where she has also shot two documentaries, the film reflects Karimi’s desire to “go beyond [Western] clichés, and to find new stories, new perspectives” about life as an Afghan woman.

“Hava, Maryam, Ayesha” is a triptych of loosely connected stories about three women living in Kabul. Hava (Arezoo Ariapoor) is a pregnant wife in a repressive household whose only comfort is her unborn child. Maryam (Fereshta Afshar) is a TV news reporter who is about to divorce her philandering husband when she finds out she’s carrying his child. Ayesha (Hasiba Ebrahimi) is an 18-year-old middle-class girl who accepts her cousin’s marriage proposal after being abandoned by her boyfriend because of her own pregnancy.

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Representing three women from different social classes and backgrounds, “Hava, Maryam, Ayesha” is a statement about the universal challenges facing women in Afghanistan. “Those women that are able to bring some significant changes in their lives, they’re not welcome very much there,” said Karimi.

Karimi collected the stories that inspired her film after more than two years of traveling around the country while working with UNICEF. “All the women, especially all the village women, they really welcomed me, and they really wanted to speak about their stories,” she said. As an Afghan woman who was raised and educated abroad, Karimi enjoyed special access from villagers who “were so happy somebody different came from outside” to listen to them.

The experience was cathartic for many. “Women don’t share their secret lives with their families or their communities, because they’re scared of rumors, gossip,” said Karimi. But with the director, they began to speak “about their suffering, about their wishes, about their dreams.”

Karimi faced practical challenges while visiting far-flung provinces, although traveling under the aegis of the U.N. offered a measure of security. Filming in Kabul, however, presented its own risks. Over the course of the 40-day winter shoot, there were four massive explosions around the city. At times, said Karimi, the entirely local cast and crew was afraid to go on. But the director was determined to see the film through to completion. “For me, as a person, I always welcome struggles,” she said. “If there is any limitation or struggle, it gives me more motivation to go ahead.”

“Hava, Maryam, Ayesha” is bound to stoke controversy in Afghanistan, where Karimi hopes to screen the film after its Venice premiere. “I want people [in Afghanistan] to watch their own stories,” she said. With peace talks between the U.S. and Taliban under way to end the nearly 18-year war, the filmmaker said “it’s an important time” to show movies like hers in the country.

“We don’t want to return to that dark time [under Taliban rule],” she said. “We don’t want Afghan women’s stories to be invisible.”

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