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

New Film Opens Old Wounds

Actor flees Afghanistan after “Kabul Express” creates uproar.
By Hafiz Gardesh
It may be conventional wisdom that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but for Afghan actor Hanif Hangam the furore surrounding the film Kabul Express has been very unfortunate indeed. He has been forced to flee his homeland because of lines uttered by his character in a new Indian-American-Afghan film.

Kabul Express, directed by Indian filmmaker Kabir Khan, paints a portrait of post-Taleban Afghanistan, telling the story of two Indian journalists who come to cover the conflict and are taken hostage by the remnants of the fundamentalist faction.

In the course of their adventure, they meet a variety of people including one character, a truck driver played by Hangam, who complains loudly about the Hazara ethnic group. According to the character, Hazaras are dangerous bandits who kill people by driving nails into their skulls.

“I just read my lines,” said Hangam, appearing on Tolo television, where he is a presenter on the popular Alarm Bell show. He was bewildered by all the fuss, he said, but in mid-January he fled Kabul and took refuge in India.

The wounds of Afghanistan’s civil war years run deep in Afghan society. Following the fall of Najibullah’s communist-backed government in 1992, rival groups tore the country apart in an attempt to fill the power vacuum. It is, in part, popular revulsion against their excesses that led to the rise of the Taleban.

Many of the political factions centred around ethnic groups: Hazaras flocked to Hezb-e-Wahdat, while Jamiat-e-Islami was largely Tajik. Hezb-e-Islami was Pashtun, as were the Taleban.

The enmity between Pashtuns and Hazaras runs particularly deep, fuelled by mutual vicious massacres by armed factions during the conflict. Many Afghans are incensed that people they see as perpetrators of civil war atrocities are now in positions of power.

Kabul Express has angered many in the Hazara community, some of whom are very prominent figures in the current government. They are calling for the film to be banned, and in addition are demanding that the actor, the director, and others involved in it be brought to trial.

“The enemies of Afghanistan are behind this film,” said Karim Khalili, second vice president of Afghanistan and an ethnic Hazara. “They are trying to provoke another bloody conflict.”

Khalili called on the government to investigate the matter, without specifying who he believed was fomenting conflict.

Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq, a former Hazara military commander who is now a leading member of parliament, was not so reticent. He insisted that members of Jamiat-e-Islami were behind the film.

"I don't say the whole Jamiat party or all people from the north were involved in this,” he said. “But certain members have kept hatred in their hearts from the civil war era, and, contrary to our national interests, have given false ideas about Hazaras to the filmmakers.”

According to Mohaqeq, his constituency, which is largely Hazara, has been putting pressure on him to do something.

“They come to me every day and say, ‘what have you done about this?’ I think if we do not take action soon, the whole issue will spiral out of control,” he told IWPR.

The film was shot in Afghanistan and took just 45 days to complete. It was launched in Indian theatres in mid-December, and pirate DVDs began circulating in Afghanistan soon afterwards.

The ministry of information and culture declined to be interviewed by IWPR, but an official communiqué issued mid-January condemned the film for “insulting scenes and words which offend an ethnic group. In fact it is an insult to the whole nation”.

The ministry banned Kabul Express, saying, “Unless the script is approved by [the ministry] citizens are required to avoid showing, selling, or purchasing this film.”

But some argue that the ministry does not have the authority to issue such a ban.

“According to the constitution, it is for the courts to decide what is or is not against the national interest. Only then can punitive decrees be issued,” said Nasrullah Stanikzai, lecturer at the law faculty of Kabul University, and a former deputy minister of information and culture. “The ministry’s ban on showing, buying and selling this film is in contravention of the media law.”

“This is a political question as well as a legal one,” he added.

Ali Ahmad Fakoor, a member of the government Media Commission which investigates alleged violations of media legislation, insisted that the ministry’s action was perfectly legal.

“The media law states clearly, in articles 31 and 32, that a publisher is responsible for any text which contains an insult to Islam or the people, and any infringement is punishable according to the law,” he said.

According to Fakoor, the film offends the culture and beliefs of the Afghan people, and must be banned. The matter should be handed over to the courts, and, if found guilty, the culprits punished.

Director Kabir Khan, in an interview aired on Tolo TV, said that his final version of the film did not contain scenes that might be found offensive to any group. He maintained that the copies for sale in Afghanistan were pirate DVDs edited in Pakistan.

“If people see my version and find it offensive, then I am sorry,” he said.

In an interview with Pajhwok Afghan News, the director of Afghan Film, Engineer Latifi, said that the text that had been submitted to the national film studio prior to filming did not contain dialogue that was insulting to any nationality.

“But it happens the world over, directors include scenes after the script has been approved,” he said.

One political analyst, who did not want to be named, said that it was unfair that the whole Hazara community should be denounced in the film.

“Instead of [blackening] Hazaras, the filmmakers should have talked about those people who committed crimes,” he said.

Ordinary people have joined the debate, and their opinions may be just as divisive as the film itself.

A government employee who did not want to be named told IWPR that he applauded the film.

“Two of my relatives were killed by Hezb-e-Wahdat in a particularly vicious way during the civil war,” he told IWPR. “I say well done to the stars of the film, who broke the silence protecting these criminals.”

Safia, a student at Kabul University, said that given the present situation, the kinds of issues raised in the film are best avoided, because they only fan the flames of discord.

“Peace and security are very fragile,” she said. “We have to wait until rule of law comes to our country. Now we have the same gunmen in the government who caused all the problems. Even [President Hamed] Karzai is afraid of them.”

Despite bans on buying and selling the film, shops in Kabul are doing a brisk trade.

One merchant, who wanted his name withheld, was enthusiastic about the film.

“In my opinion, [the Hazaras] are now partners in my company,” he laughed. “They caused a fuss, made the film famous, and I’m now selling 30 or 40 DVDs every day.”

Hafiz Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul.

More IWPR's Global Voices

Armenia-Azerbaijan: Back to War?
Harsh rhetoric from the leaders of both countries accompanied by an unusually high deployment of military hardware.
Armenia-Azerbaijan: Back to War?
Armenia-Azerbaijan: Back to War?
Amid Pandemic, Cuban State Curbs Its Entrepreneurs
The crackdown on street vendors selling basic goods means people have to join long queues in government-run shops.
Cuba's Elderly Work Through the Pandemic
Cuba Slow to Act Over Domestic Abuse