11 Augest 2001
Terrible things go on in Afghanistan - everyone knows it. So why is Mohsen Makhmalbaf one of the few film-makers to tackle the subject? Below, the director talks to Geoffrey Macnab; bottom, an extract from his Afghan memoir
Mohsen Makhmalbaf's movie Kandahar is about a young Canada-based journalist who travels back to her native Afghanistan to try to save her younger sister from suicide. She encounters a country in the grip of the Taliban. It's like the wild west with turbans. There is poverty, religious bigotry and violence wherever she goes. In one telling scene at once comic, grotesque and beautiful, we see an army of cripples, all of whom have lost limbs to landmines, hobbling towards a Red Cross food package that has been dropped from the sky. It's like something out of an old Bunuel film, but this isn't some directorial conceit: it's a moment from what Makhmalbaf would claim is everyday life in Afghanistan.
"The reality of Afghanistan is surreal in itself," he states. "This is a country where 10 million of the population - the women - don't have a face. When you watch them walking in the desert, no other picture could be more surreal than that. When you watch people who've lost their legs in explosions take a shovel and use it as a leg, it seems surreal, but it's reality."
Recent events have lent the film an added resonance. The arrest earlier this month of eight aid workers accused of trying to spread Christianity (an offence punishable by death) is just the kind of bizarre but terrifying occurrence that Makhmalbaf believes has now become commonplace under the Taliban.
Makhmalbaf shot Kandahar on the border of Afghanistan, but while he was researching the movie he secretly entered the country and witnessed the conditions at first hand. What he found shocked him profoundly. A courteous, humorous man, he has long been one of Iran's most distinguished film-makers. Kandahar is perhaps his most polemical film.
He is clearly fascinated and appalled by the mindset of the Taliban. In the past 20 years in Afghanistan, six and a half million people have been made refugees.
At least three million have gone to Pakistan, where there are now more than 2,000 madaris , religious boarding schools. Here young boys, mostly orphans, are indoctrinated in a militant way of thinking. Makhmalbaf shows one such school in the film. Hundreds of young boys, heads bobbing wildly, sit in a long corridor reciting the Koran as a martinet teacher stands over them.
"When you see the Taliban as a political group, you arrive at one conclusion, but when you look at them from a psychological perspective, you realise that they're just a bunch of hungry kids who end up in these schools. When they leave these places, they become militants."
There have been few films made in or about Afghanistan. Makhmalbaf himself shot one, The Cyclist, in 1988. Russians made a handful about the experiences of their soldiers in the country, there were a few propaganda pics about the mojahedin's fight against the Soviet army, and there has been one Hollywood film - Rambo III. On the whole, though, the country has been spurned by film-makers - hardly surprising, when one considers that cameras aren't allowed inside its borders. As Makhmalbaf puts it, "It's a country without an image." All there is in the way of media is two hours of radio broadcasting every day. "There is no television, no cinema, newspapers do not print pictures, taking photographs or painting is considered 'impure', music is forbidden, and women do not have the right to anything."
The picture he paints of the country, both in conversation and in Kandahar itself, is grim in the extreme. There is no industry because almost every kind of economic activity is proscribed. Even before the Taliban, women were not allowed to attend school. Since he finished the film, conditions have become worse, not better.
By making Kandahar, Makhmalbaf acknowledges, he may have put his life at risk. "The Taliban were murdering their own opposition inside Iran, even in the places that we were visiting. You never know what will happen. Maybe one day they'll murder me, too."
The most ironic thing about Kandahar is that by making a movie about probably the most repressive society on earth, Makhmalbaf won himself an artistic freedom he would never have been allowed back home. "If I had said 10% of what I am saying about Afghanistan about Iran, my film would have been stopped."
Two of his films - The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood (1991) and Time of Love (1990) - are still banned in Iran. So is his son Mezssam Makhmalbaf's documentary How Samira Made Blackboards because his daughter Samira (also a director) is shown with too low a neckline.
For so embattled a filmmaker, Makhmalbaf is surprisingly cheerful and stoical. Kandahar reflects his personality. Despite the grim subject matter, it's lyrical and often humorous. He jokes about the shyster who spent months pretending to be him (an episode chronicled in Abbas Kiarostami's film Close-Up). "In Iran, people still ask me if I'm the real Makhmalbaf." He is also wryly sardonic about the labyrinthine censorship system in his homeland. "Each time they try to stop me making one film, I start on another one," he states, before going on to explain the intricacies of getting a movie released in Iran; of how he has to deal with political, ideological and cultural commissars.
Kandahar made most other films in Cannes this year seem trivial. Not that either critics or buyers paid much attention to it. As if to underline western indifference, it was passed over for the main awards and fobbed off with the obscure "Ecumenical" prize instead. Although it's screening in Edinburgh, no UK distributor has yet had the gumption to acquire it. In Europe, Makhmalbaf ruminates, people seem more worried about the destruction of stone Buddhas than what happens to the people. After my interview with him, he e-mailed me an article he had recently written about the situation, some of which is reproduced below. The opening paragraph made for chilling reading: "If you read this article in full, it will take about an hour of your time. In this one hour, some 14 more people will have died in Afghanistan of war and hunger and 60 others will have become refugees from Afghanistan to other countries..."
'They had come to kidnap or kill me. I sent them the other way - and ran'
I have travelled within Afghanistan and witnessed the reality of the life of that nation. As a film-maker, I have produced two feature films on Afghanistan: The Cyclist (1988) and Kandahar (2001). Yet Afghanistan is a nation without a picture. Afghan women are faceless: 10 million out of the 20 million population don't get a chance to be seen. During the past few years there has been no television broadcasting, only a couple of two-page newspapers with no pictures. This is the sum total of media in Afghanistan. Painting and photography are prohibited. No journalists are allowed to enter Afghanistan, let alone take pictures.
In 21st-century Afghanistan there are no movie theatres, either. Previously, there were 14 cinemas, and film studios produced imitations of Indian movies. In the world of cinema that produces 2,000 to 3,000 films per year, nothing is forthcoming from Afghanistan.
Hollywood did, however, produce a movie, Rambo III, based on Afghanistan. It was filmed entirely in Hollywood and not one Afghan was included. The only authentic scene was Rambo's presence in Peshawar, Pakistan, and that was thanks to the art of back projection.Is this Hollywood's image of a country where 10% of the people were wiped out, 30% became refugees and about one million are currently dying of hunger?
The Russians produced two films concerning the memoirs of Russian soldiers during the occupation of Afghanistan. The mojahedin made a few films after the Russian retreat, which are essentially propagandist war movies and not a real representation of Afghanistan.
Two feature films have been produced in Iran on the situation of Afghan immigrants: Friday and Rain. I made my two films. That is the entire catalogue of images of Afghans in the world media. Even the number of documentaries is limited. Afghanistan is a country without an image.
I never forget those nights filming Kandahar. While our team searched the deserts with flashlights, we would see dying refugees like herds of sheep left in the desert. When we took those that we thought were dying of cholera to hospitals in Zabol, we realised that they were dying of hunger.
In 1986, I took a road trip from Mirjaveh in Pakistan to Quetta and Peshawar. I got on a colourful bus filled with all kinds of strange people. People with long, thin beards, turbans and long dresses.
At first, I wasn't aware that the bus roof was loaded with drugs. The bus drove across dirt expanses without roads. We arrived at a surreal gate that neither separated nor connected anything. It was just a gate in the middle of the desert. The bus stopped. A group of bikers appeared and asked our driver to step down. They brought out a sack of money and counted it. Our driver and his assistant took the money and left on the bikes. The new driver announced that he was now the owner of the bus and everything in it. Together with the bus, we had been sold.
This transaction was repeated every few hours. We found out that a particular party controlled each leg of the route and every time the bus was sold, the price increased. There were also caravans that carried Dushka heavy machine-guns on the back of the camels. Bullets were sold in bags as if they were beans. Well, how would the world's drug trade take place without such exchanges?
Wanting to film the starving Afghans, I called Kamal Hussein, the UN representative from Bangladesh. I told him I wanted permission to go to north Afghanistan (controlled by Ahmad Shah Massoud) and Kandahar (controlled by the Taliban). Eventually just two of us received approval to travel with a small video camera. We were to go to Islamabad, Pakistan, and take a 10-passenger UN airplane.
It took two weeks for the UN office to inquire when it would be convenient for us to depart. We were ready but they said that it would take another month. "It will get colder in a month and more people will be dying - it would make your film more interesting," they said. They recommended February. I asked, "More interesting?" They replied that perhaps it would provoke the conscience of the world. I didn't know what to say.
People told me to be careful. There is always the threat of kidnapping or terrorism at the borders. The Taliban are reputed to assassinate suspected opponents en route between Zahedan and Zabol. I kept saying my subject was humanitarian, not political.
Still, one day when we had finished filming near the border, I came across a group that had come either to kill or kidnap me. They asked me about Makhmalbaf. I was sporting a long thin beard and wearing Afghan dress. I sent them the other way and began running.
The only one whose heart had not yet turned to stone was the Buddha statue of Bamiyan. With all his grandeur, he felt humiliated by the enormity of this tragedy and broke down. Buddha's state of needlessness and calmness became ashamed before a nation in need of bread. Buddha shattered to inform the world of all this poverty, ignorance, oppression and mortality. But negligent humanity heard only about the demolition of the Buddha statue. I reached the conclusion that the statue of Buddha was not demolished by anybody; it fell down out of shame. Out of shame for the world's ignorance towards Afghanistan.
Source: The Gaurdian, 11 Augest 2001