What Does the Future Hold for Afghan Cinema?

At an event held in conjunction with the current Berlinale film festival, titled “Imagine Afghanistan: Women filmmakers and their vision,” directors Sharhbanoo Sadat, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami and Zamarin Wahdat discussed how best to support Afghan cinema. They called for female Afghan filmmakers now living in exile, to be included in existing networks and receive financing for projects.

Director Sharhbanoo Sadat further emphasised the importance of being included in networks. Sadat has gained international attention since her feature film “Wolf and Sheep” won the 2016 Art Cinema award in the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight selection.

Just a year ago, she was living in Kabul. “I really wanted to believe in Afghanistan, to trust that I had a future there,” the 30-year-old filmmaker said during a panel discussion at the International Women’s Film Festival — part of the Berlinale. Born in Tehran to Afghan refugees, when she was 11, she and her family returned to Afghanistan, living in a mountain village, before moving to Kabul when she was 18. “I had even bought an apartment there,” she said.

However, the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021 put an abrupt end to her dream of having a filmmaking career in Afghanistan. The Taliban ordered the closure of cinemas in the country; thus, the future for the country’s filmmakers is uncertain. Sadat fled Afghanistan and was taken in by colleagues from the film industry in Hamburg. This year, she is a member of the Berlinale jury.

Can Afghan cinema come from exile?

While Sadat is hopeful that she will be able to make Afghan films in exile, her Iranian colleague Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami expressed less confidence during the event. In the West, she said, only films that repeatedly spread the same prejudices about Afghanistan and the Middle East are financed. “When I made a film about Iran, I was told not to show any shots of the many modern highways. In Kabul, I was told not to show elevators.”

Although her documentary “Sonita,” about a young Afghan rapper in exile in Iran, won an award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in the US, the film almost broke her heart, the filmmaker said. “We have to show the versions of Kabul or Iran that people in the West want to see, and they’re not interested in what it’s really like there.”

Criticising Western cliches

Positive stories, in particular, are overlooked added Zamarin Wahdat, a German-Afghan director who grew up in Hamburg. The British documentary “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl),” for which she was an assistant director, was rejected by many film festivals. The reason was that it was not considered to be “dramatic” enough, she said. “In Germany, you can tell a father-daughter story where nothing dramatic happens,” Wahdat explained. “But as soon as the story is set in Afghanistan, suddenly that’s not enough.”

The panel discussion received a lot of support on the web. The three directors are now pinning their hopes on films that can be made in exile.

“It will take us four or five years to learn new languages and make contacts,” said Sharhbanoo Sadat. “But in 10 years, we may have Afghan cinema that is created in exile.”

It is crucial to include the perspective of women, who are now once again excluded everywhere in Afghanistan, the filmmaker continued, “The best revenge is to keep making films.”

Featured image: A shot from the documentary ‘Sonita’ about an Afghan female rapper, directed by Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami