Kabul Express

Afghan filmmaker Siddiq Barmak does whatever it takes to tell stories about his country.

Written by Debjani Paul | Published: May 19, 2013 2:35:20 am

Afghan filmmaker Siddiq Barmak does whatever it takes to tell stories about his country.

It takes a certain talent to convince the Afghan government to allow the cultivation of poppy. Ravaged by war and terrorism that was funded by opium trading,the country banned poppy cultivation in 2002. Yet,filmmaker Siddiq Barmak managed to convince them that he just had to grow poppy for his next film Opium War. “They said,yes,we are giving you permission but not on paper,” he says. So Barmak grew his poppy on a lonely hilltop. But it didn’t make things any easier. “At the time,some helicopters were spraying chemicals to stop poppy production in the country. So we made a big sign with stones that said this poppy plantation is for filming,don’t destroy it. From the sky,the sign was very clear and we were able to continue filming,” he says,adding,“Everything — not just filming — is very difficult in Afghanistan.” This has been the running theme of his career in the country.

He was barely five when he first watched a movie and was full of awe. He says,“I went mad when I saw the film and I thought how are puppets moving and growing on the screen?” As he grew up,he dreamed of becoming a film projectionist and even made his own makeshift cinema theatre with bits of cut film reel and sunlight. “Gradually,I realised it’s not only the film,there is something called art. Something that will be mine,” he says. That is how Barmak became a filmmaker and lived his dream — until the Taliban took over in 1996 and banned all films. When they raided his house,they destroyed every film artifact that was there. After two weeks,Barmak left Kabul along with his wife,daughter and parents. When he returned,he hoped to make a movie that would tell the story of what was happening in Afghanistan. His movie Osama was the first to be filmed in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. “But Osama was not only about all this; it was about my pain. I had to say something about the dark time in our history,when nobody had any right to say anything or do something,” he says.

Osama is relentless in its effort to depict these stories truthfully,and those looking for a happy ending will find none. “We are haunted by old traditions,corruption,misunderstanding between communities and nations. That’s why there is no happy ending,” he says. He adds that it is necessary for them to remember everything that happened.

The future though looks bright. In both his movies,most of the roles are played by fresh talent. “Now we have a lot of filmmakers and many of them are women,” he says.

Like Osama and Opium War,the movies there attempt to capture and stay true to all that has happened in Afghanistan and how these events have changed the country. “Movies must be a mirror of reality. I don’t believe cinema can change anything but at least you’re expressing an idea that will touch hearts,” he says.

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