Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Movie Revival

Recent premier of new Afghan film raises hopes of post-Taleban cinema revival
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Cinemagoers in Tashkent were treated to a rare spectacle earlier this month - the premiere of an Afghan-made film, Riders. The audience of mainly Afghan refugees was hugely impressed. Tashkent's Cinema House resounded with applause, dancing and cheering throughout the evening's showing.


Under the Taleban, cinema was banned in Afghanistan. Forced into exile, a few of the industry's directors and actors have fought to keep Afghan film making alive and with some success.


"I haven't seen an Afghan picture for such a long time," said Umo Azizi, a refugee from Kabul, after the premiere. "For a moment I had the feeling I was in a movie theatre in Kabul."


Riders was directed by exile Afghan director Sidiq Obaidi. Like many of his colleagues, he was forced to leave his country after the Taleban seized power, and was one of the few to persevere with his trade.


"The Taleban banned cinema, destroyed our film studios, movie theatres, equipment, video and film archives. Actors and directors fled the country, fearing for their lives, " he said. "But we continued thinking about cinema and remained creative and productive - I was given this opportunity in Uzbekistan."


Obaidi began shooting Riders in northern Afghanistan in the spring of 1997. As the Taleban forces advanced into the north, however, he had to move across the frontier into Uzbekistan. Finally, in 2001, he received support from the Afghan Union of Cinematographers to continue work on the film in Uzbekistan.


The plot of Riders is simple, borrowing heavily on the best traditions of Indian cinema. Obaidi plays the lead character, Sukhrab, an excellent horseman who triumphs in every riding competition. His jealous rivals conspire to ensure he falls from his horse at the next event.


Sukhrab is seriously injured and has to leave his little village and his beloved girlfriend in order to get treatment. But the hero survives and returns home to wreak revenge on his enemies and marry his girl.


The film is due for release in Afghanistan soon and Obaidi hopes a return to such prosaic pastimes will help the people of Afghanistan adjust to peacetime life.


"People in Afghanistan are starved of such simple, normal things like cinema. You see what happens in Kabul when films are shown - enormous crowds turn up," the director said. " The more films are shown there, the sooner people will get used to the idea that the war is over and that it is time for a peaceful life."


Obaidi is planning to return to Kabul himself in the near future. "Peace has come. I will return in order to serve my country and to make cinema in Afghanistan for Afghanistan," he said.


Many Afghan exiles living in Uzbekistan are also hoping to go back soon.


Mohammad Farhad and his family left the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif for Uzbekistan six years ago. "I've been working as a small trader, my children went to school here and learned Russian," Muhammad explained. "But we're thinking about going home now that the Taleban are no longer there. I'd be very glad to live in my native country again - no other country can replace your motherland."


Afghan refugees living further afield are more cautious about repatriation, however. Many complain that the new government, despite its stated interest in attracting qualified people back, is not in a position to offer returnees jobs and security.


"As a gynecologist I know that my knowledge is needed in Afghanistan today, but I am not sure that the government is ready to employ specialists like me, " said Dr Musa Qarizadah, now living in London.


"Besides, I am not sure that the current authorities are capable of guaranteeing peace in the country. They themselves are former field commanders and people suffered at their hands too. "


Another exile living in London, Muhammad Karim, agreed. "Already now we see that armed clashes in the northern part of Afghanistan between the commanders of General Abdul Rashid Dostum and General Ustad Attah," he said. " These people are no longer able to live without war, they are sick. I don't trust them. Only strict international control can tame them."


Afghanistan is likely to remain unstable for some time to come, but Obaidi believes artists like him can contribute something towards getting things back to normal.


"Maybe when I start working in Afghanistan, when the movie theatres are reopened and even women can come and see films, those Afghans now living far away will finally decide to come back, " he said. " Maybe cinema can persuade people peace is possible."


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR director in Uzbekistan


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