Asked in writing whether she could discuss the situation facing Afghan filmmakers after the Taliban’s reclamation of power last weekend, Diana Saqeb Jamal declines succinctly. “My only thought is we are fucked. Sorry.”
The director, whose short film “Roqaia” (pictured) screened in Venice’s 2019 Horizons section, has been in Canada for months. A visit to family there was prolonged by the pandemic, but she’d already booked her ticket back to Kabul and was planning a long shoot for a new documentary about women’s rights in a remote village near Iran.
The Taliban’s abrupt take-over of Kabul on Sunday simply did not compute, despite weeks spent so worried she couldn’t eat or sleep. Her friends and family were in the city; her camera, equipment, hard drives and clothes were still in her apartment. Just two summers ago, the 80-seat Ai Khanum cinema she helped to build opened and hosted an inaugural festival of around 100 films. Older women wept — it was their first time in a movie theater in decades.
When she does speak, she describes a grief that weighs on her like “the whole of the Hindu Kush mountains.”
“I’m trying to avoid any nostalgia for past Kabul, or our cinema, or our cultural center. I just tell myself, ‘You’ll have time to mourn for that later,’ because it’s all gone,” Saqeb Jamal tells Variety. “All of us were so hopeful that, 10 years later, Kabul would be a democratic example for the region. Now, we are starting again from zero for the 100th time.”
Against all odds, Afghan cinema slowly blossomed in the past decade, led in large part by the efforts of a handful of dogged women. As artists returned to the country after the U.S. forced the Taliban from power in 2001, Afghan films started to win acclaim at international festivals, many of which were made by self-taught, under-resourced directors facing a constant threat of violence.
That progress has been obliterated overnight with the return to power of the Taliban, which has historically imposed extremely harsh restrictions on women’s rights and freedom of expression.
When the group gained control of the majority of the country in 1996, they immediately shuttered or bombed cinemas, smashed televisions and forbade music. Their fear of free-thinking put artists in particular danger, notes Sahraa Karimi, director of Venice-premiering “Hava, Maryam, Ayesha” and head of the state-run company Afghan Film.
“These past five years we filmmakers were the cultural ambassadors showing the new face of Afghanistan to the world,” Karimi tells Variety from Kiev while eating her first real meal in days. “Normal, ordinary people just change along with each regime. We are the ones who generate real change, which comes through culture, cinema, theater — art that inspires thinking and questions.”
Karimi escaped to Ukraine on Monday with her two assistants and assorted family members after capturing global attention with an open letter calling on filmmakers worldwide for help, alongside a harrowing video of herself running amid the chaos of the Taliban’s return.
She vows to never stop making films, but the prospect of working in ongoing exile is sobering to the point that she calls it “the biggest sorrow I have had in my life.”
“I am still in shock, but I’m sure when things have calmed down I will start to think, ‘What will I do?’” she says. “How many stories can you make in Tajikistan or Uzbekistan? Are you going to build an entire Kabul somewhere else? That works in the short term, maybe, for one, two or three films, but not the long term.”
The emergence of a growing film scene in Afghanistan challenged expectations of what was possible in a country plagued by more than 40 years of war.
Afghan Film was juggling 22 films at different stages of production — three from female directors — that will be lost for the foreseeable future. Karimi’s own second feature, which would have been Afghanistan’s first local comedy in recent memory, is now impossible to execute.
In November 2020, the director walked the red carpet at the country’s first official national film festival and presented prize-winners with golden statuettes. Two weeks ago, Afghan Film hosted a festival for dozens of experimental, avant-garde shorts. The country has even convened six iterations of an International Women’s Film Festival, held on the ancient ramparts of the oasis city of Herat.
“Our slogan used to be that Herat doesn’t have a cinema, but it has an International Women’s Film Festival,” co-founder Guissou Jahangiri jokes darkly.
Within hours of the Taliban’s return, public images of women in many areas of the country were already being painted over.
“I feel like I’m watching a [Quentin] Tarantino film. I look at what’s actually happening and think, ‘No, that’s an American movie, not real American actions,’” says Afghanistan Documentary House founder Sahra Mani, requesting that her current location be withheld.
Artists and civil society workers are trying to avoid sleeping in their own homes, which are being marked by Taliban militants with intelligence on their addresses, a source tells Variety. They’ve good reason to hide, explains Mani: “There are just two options now if you think differently, or are an intellectual, filmmaker or artist — you leave the country or the Taliban comes and kills you.”
“We are just a few female filmmakers in Afghanistan, maybe 10, so they can easily find us, kill us, get rid of us — even in just one hour,” she says.
There are now more women than ever looking to become directors. When Mani began teaching film at Kabul University in 2014, she had only one female student, but each year the tally grew. Seizing the rare privilege of education, they proved, in her estimation, even “braver, more focused and more determined” than the boys.
“We had just started down the path to slowly start building our industry and community — making films about Afghan life by Afghan filmmakers, introducing each other to different workshops and funds, receiving so many prizes internationally,” Mani says. “We are losing so, so much that we achieved by working so hard in the most difficult circumstances.”
U.S.-based Afghan filmmaker Sonia Nassery Cole (“Black Tulip”) explained that scores of young aspiring filmmakers and camerawomen she and others have mentored are now contacting them with desperate pleas for help getting out.
“I feel so helpless. How am I going to get you out if you can’t even get out of your own house? When the entire U.S. army couldn’t?” says Nassery Cole, currently speaking from Europe in a “constant state of shaking and disbelief.”
Even though her illegal shoots in Afghanistan were never easy, until the events of recent days, the situation still felt promising.
“The pressure [Afghan women] are under builds anger, and then that anger comes out in their talent, and so they fly. That’s where Afghan women were — they were just flying,” says Nassery Cole.
“The art was coming back, the filmmakers were coming back. There’s so much talent in my country, so much hunger to tell the world their stories, but that’s all shut down and pushed behind a dark, dark curtain. I doubt we’ll see another film shot there for the next 30 years.”