Afghan filmmakers have spent the past 20 years exposing atrocities committed by the Taliban and bringing to screen stories about what life was like under the command of the radical organization. Now, however, they see the group’s likely return to power – and fear being the first targets of their revenge.
One of the country’s best-known directors, Siddiq Barmak (from the 2003 film “Osama”), sent a letter to foreign festivals asking them to help bring the situation to the world’s attention. The text is also signed by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (“Le Silence”, 1998).
“Nobody cares about independent Afghan filmmakers who have been making films critical of the Taliban in recent years,” said the letter, which recently arrived at São Paulo’s Mostra Internacional de Cinema. “We believe that the lives of these filmmakers are truly in danger and that the global film community should take immediate action to save them.”
The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 1996, imposing a radical regime. The American invasion in 2001 dislodged this faction. The US government was looking for Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks – the Taliban allowed bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist organization to operate freely in the country.
The presence of American and foreign troops in the country kept the Taliban threat under some control, but never completely. But current US President Joe Biden began withdrawing his troops in May, saying it was “time to end the Eternal War.”
Biden wants to move away from the conflicts he has inherited and also reduce the American presence in the Middle East. By the end of August, the United States should already have left the country – analysts say, leaving a ripe fruit for the Taliban to harvest.
According to the Long War Journal, the Taliban has tripled the number of districts it controls in Afghanistan in the past three months since the United States began its withdrawal.
There were 73 districts as of mid-April, and the number increased to 221 by mid-July. There were 5,183 civilians killed and injured in the country in the first half of the year, a 47% increase from 2020, according to UN data. This is the highest number since counting began in 2009.
“The situation in Afghanistan is getting worse and worse,” Barmak told Folha by telephone. He talks about France, where he lives in exile with his family for security reasons. According to him, filmmakers – like other artists as well as journalists – are targets of the Taliban because the faction wants to silence the Afghans. As he had done from 1996 to 2001, when he was in power.
“Cinema is a powerful way to educate people, to give them an idea of freedom, of respect for others,” he says. “In the 20 years since the collapse of the Taliban, Afghanistan has become a strong country with free speech, and we know its value. It is a dangerous thing for totalitarian and religious regimes. It’s against their policy, ”he explains.
Barmak’s best-known film, “Osama”, depicts the life of an Afghan girl under the Taliban regime. She disguises herself as a boy so that she can work. She ends up being recruited into a fundamentalist religious school, where she is discovered and punished by radicals.
The feature film – the first fully recorded in Afghanistan since the faction’s takeover in 1996 – won a Golden Globe and caused a sensation around the world.
Then began the threats that push the director to leave his country. And that was when the foreign troops were still there. “Kabul has become a very dangerous place for me and my family because the Taliban can appear at any time.
Barmak cites a few examples of filmmakers who are still in Afghanistan and need help leaving. One is Ahmad Zia Arash from “The Bird Wasn’t a Bird” (2017), the story of a boy who goes to Pakistan to learn how to be a suicide bomber. Another example is Mirwais Rekab, from “Kabul Cinema”, about a boy who creates a mobile cinema. In the film, the boy is chased by the Taliban – precisely the fate Afghan filmmakers want to avoid.
Together, these films denounce the disastrous consequences of the violent and fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan. On the other hand, they praise the paths of those who manage to challenge the radicals, even if they end up being punished.
It is unclear what can be done at this time to prevent the Taliban from taking revenge on the filmmakers. The United States is struggling to eliminate the thousands of translators who have worked with the country and have therefore become the target of the radical organization. There is no sign that there is a political will to remove artists as well.
But Barmak and Makhmalbaf’s letter has at least circulated among artistic communities around the world, among cultural producers looking for a way to support independent filmmakers who have challenged the Taliban.
“We are trying to find a solution to help them,” says Barmak. “Filmmakers don’t know how to use guns. They have the camera, the pen, the words. But now they don’t know how to protect themselves.