KABUL: A decade after the fall of the Taliban regime, which disapproved of cinema, a group of Afghan directors have created a film love letter to their capital, rooted in the grim reality of everyday life in the war-torn city.
Forced marriage, people smuggling, illegal land grabs, land mines and ethnic conflict – life in Kabul is not short of problems, and “Kabul I Love You” explores them through 10 interwoven stories.
Afghanistan’s film industry was hammered by 17 years of war after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and was snuffed out entirely under the moralistic rule of the Taliban.
During their 1996-2001 regime, the hardliners closed cinemas and hung televisions from lampposts, regarding all images as un-Islamic. As the fate of the Bamiyan Buddhas testifies, sculptures too were targeted.
Now Afghan cinema is struggling to re-emerge amid a wrecked economy and an ongoing insurgency against the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.
Afghanistan produces around 100 films a year, according to documentary-maker Malek Shafii, but they are shot on tiny budgets and are often very poor.
“Kabul I Love You” has been funded by the UN mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, as a means of giving the country’s cinema a boost. Ario Soltani, from UNAMA, says the idea was to encourage filmmakers to develop their own ideas.
“We wanted to reach the filmmakers, to support them, to communicate with Afghan people,” he said. “Not with our messages but with theirs. We hope they reflect the Afghan society and the Afghan ideas of that time.”
The funding project was not an unqualified success – one of the 11 directors chosen from 200 applicants fled the country as soon as he got his hands on UNAMA’s $8,000, while another left for Iran after being threatened.
Despite such setbacks, the film was shot and got a warm reception when it was screened at the French cultural center in Kabul in May.
The directors are raw and parts of the film betrayed what some see to be a lack of experience on their part – exaggerated characters, hammy dialogue and deathly slow pace.
Others showed real flair. One highlight is the modest, restrained dialogue of Farhad Razae’s segment, a bitter denunciation of forced marriage.
In the short section, titled “Virgin Towers,” the caretaker of a mosque learns that a pretty young woman in his place of worship has fled her family to escape marrying one of her relatives.
Denounced by a neighbor, the young woman ends up running from the police. Her heavy breath and narrow field of vision, restricted by the burqa she wears to hide herself, allow the viewer to empathize with the horror of her situation.
Rezae said he based the film on experiences he had as a young man looking after a mosque.
“During that time, a girl was coming for prayers,” Rezae said. “She would rest in the mosque two hours after the prayers. I wanted to know who the girl was, but I was ashamed and because of religion, I never asked her what her problems were.”
Shafii hailed Rezae’s achievement, saying he had “managed to get closer to Afghan realities” than other filmmakers.
Writers and artists have been pushing boundaries in what remains an extremely conservative society over the past five years, Shafii said. “Now,” he said, “people have started to realize that if they cross borders, nothing will happen to them.”
NATO forces are scheduled to depart Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and the precarious security situation they will leave behind is unlikely to be conducive to this dream of artistic growth.
Saying “Kabul I Love You” is a message of hope from these budding filmmakers for their future.