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Osama and Afghan cinema: an interview with Siddiq Barmak

About the authors
Margaret Loescher is a documentary filmmaker. Pulled from the Rubble is her first feature length film.
Maryam Maruf is a Commissioning Editor of openDemocracy.

openDemocracy: Osama is a very beautiful and poignant film, but also extremely sad.

Siddiq Barmak: Yes, I’m very sorry about that! All my friends have been telling me that I must make a comedy next time.

openDemocracy: You also wrote the screenplay for Osama. When did the idea come to you for this film?

Siddiq Barmak: When I was in Pakistan I was searching within the Afghan community for a good story. I heard a lot of stories from children working on the streets. But in fact, the film’s story came from Saha, a Pashtun-language Afghan newspaper published in Peshawar.

Siddiq Barmak is the director of the Afghan feature film Osama. He was born in Afghanistan in 1962 and attended film school in Moscow. He lived in exile in Pakistan from 1996-2002, and returned to head the Afghan Film Organisation and the Afghan Children’s Education Movement.

The newspaper article described a little girl who went to school during the Taliban period, something that was forbidden according to Taliban – not Islamic – beliefs. She decided to cut her beautiful hair and dress like a boy, and she went to the school, which was a hidden, underground one. But this secret school was exposed, its principal arrested by the Amr bil-Ma’aruf – the Taliban’s religious police – and executed. The girl’s true identity was revealed.

It was a very short story but I was shocked that the girl wanted to change her sex under pressure. It seemed like a kind of fascism. I really wanted to make this the subject of my film. Then, when I started to write the script, I started to collect some other true stories and it became not so short.

For example, when I returned to Kabul from Peshawar I saw that the priority for people in Kabul was to feed themselves and their family. I made the mission of the little girl in the film to get a job rather than to go to school. The story was not completely changed, but I introduced different things.

There were also things I filmed which I left out. There was a scene where the little girl, who ends up being the mullah’s wife, escapes from the house with all the other women. They go on a long journey over a very beautiful landscape. The final scene is a shot of them crossing the rainbow. It was very beautiful, and it was my dream that they should reach this freedom. But it was not very true. It felt like lying, it wasn’t part of myself. That’s why I decided to take it out.

Afghan culture: rehabilitating the soul

openDemocracy: Are you based in Kabul now?

Siddiq Barmak: Yes, after six years in Pakistan I am living in Kabul with my family. Also with my mother and father, my wife and two daughters and one son.

We were together in Pakistan. I was working in Peshawar as an actor for a radio show called ‘New Home New Life’. And also for a small cultural centre, called Irfan.

openDemocracy: How did you feel when you were allowed to go back home?

Siddiq Barmak: It was a special feeling. It was like I was reborn. I never forget that snow was falling. I love this image of Afghanistan with snow falling. It was like the gods saying welcome.

openDemocracy: What is so clear in your film is that there was a kind of eradication of the past in Afghanistan under the Taliban. All forms of history and art seem to have disappeared. This is movingly symbolised in the film in the way that people’s homes were bare, all their memories were in a box. The past only remains in the fragments of the grandmother’s stories. Where do you, and the Afghan Film Organisation (AFO) which you head, begin to repair the damage?

Siddiq Barmak: One of the very worst things that happened to our people during the Taliban was that they were not able to make a decision for themselves. It broke up all the systems of human society in Afghanistan.

I was the head of the AFO – a state institution with authority over the production of film, including censorship – from 1992-96. When the Taliban came to power I escaped to Peshawar, and lived there for six years. In February 2002, I returned to Kabul.

Filming 'Osama'Filming 'Osama'

When I came back, it was like being in another world. My friends had broken down, they had forgotten that they were filmmakers. It was terrible. From all that had happened to my country and my friends, I thought that it was very important to renew the things that had been left to waste. Not only physical things like equipment and buildings, but also the rehabilitation of the soul. But for this to happen, we have to make a very strong effort to create a new beginning for Afghan cinema.

openDemocracy: While you were in Pakistan, the Taliban destroyed many of your films. Can they be restored? What’s happening about that?

Siddiq Barmak: Not only my films but the work of other filmmakers was destroyed. They searched my house and destroyed my 8mm cameras, photos, projectors. The Taliban not only blew up the Buddha statues in Bamiyan; the Taliban leader Mullah Omar also gave orders to destroy the National Gallery, the National Film Archive, the radio and studio archive.

They actually started with the film archives. Fortunately, some very bravehearted radio colleagues came to the main building of the Afghan Film Institute, closed the door and started to hide all the original films – everywhere! Under the floorboards, in the dark rooms, on the roof, behind the screens – everywhere they could. They also cut the electricity, so it was completely dark, just like a film studio.

The Taliban didn’t know the structure of the building, so they couldn’t find these hidden things. But they did find some copies of these films outside the building. There were a lot of wonderful films from Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran, USA, even two or three from Britain. The Taliban burnt them all – around 2,600 films – in the very place we wanted to raise a new building to house this archive. It was a catastrophe, actually.

openDemocracy: What is the state of film in Afghanistan now?

Siddiq Barmak: In Lahore, Pakistan, there are around 134 working cinemas. In the whole of Afghanistan after 1978, there were 26 movie theatres – 18 of them in Kabul. Many of these were lost in the war. The ones that remain show mainly Indian Bollywood and American Hollywood films. But all the time, we are looking for different, independent films from places near us. For instance, I really want to show Sabiha Sumar’s film, Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters). This genre of film is very important – it’s a different film, completely different.

It’s very important for our independence to have a good cinema inside Afghanistan. We had a bad experience after the Soviet invasion in 1979 – government monopolisation of cinema, and of everything.

Regarding cinema, we are really making progress. For example I made Osama without any government support. It was a good experience to work with my colleagues in inviting foreign investment to benefit an Afghan cinema project. But all governments should support and subsidise their film industries. It is a way of creating a more open society where filmmakers can give themselves freedom. We are just beginning to do this.

I’m especially happy to see that girls are becoming involved in filmmaking. In 2003, twelve girls studied camerawork and techniques, and they have made very interesting short features about the situation of women in Afghanistan. Now they want to make a short feature film, with actors and actresses. It’s a very brave and big step.

The wisdom of the streets

openDemocracy: You’re also the chair of the Afghan Children Education Movement.

Mohsen MakhmalbafMohsen Makhmalbaf

Siddiq Barmak: The famous Iranian film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is also a great friend of Afghanistan. After making his film Kandahar, and before 9/11, he decided to create an Afghan Children’s Education Movement (ACEM) to provide Afghan children, refugees near to the Iranian border, with facilities for education. He also tried to persuade the Iranian government to pass a special law allowing education for Afghan children.

After the Taliban regime fell in November 2001, Mohsen transferred the ACEM to Afghanistan. He set up schools, got the parents involved, played an active part in ensuring the existence of education. Now I’m the head of this movement and trying to expand its scope to try and build a new Afghan cinema.

We are discovering some great acting talent in schools, orphanages, children’s centres – also among girls and boys working in different jobs on the streets. In Osama, most of the actors were street kids in real life. My belief is that we can also find some great future filmmakers among these children. We’re trying to teach them, to provide facilities, encourage them to develop their ideas, to make documentaries and short films.

openDemocracy: Who funds the ACEM? Does the Afghan government give you money?

Siddiq Barmak: No, not the Afghan government, but we have some friends from Japan, who have lots of good interest regarding this issue. We have also received some funds from Unesco.

A world beyond Hollywood

openDemocracy: It was fascinating to see in Osama that children who had lived their whole lives in a country with no films, no television, could express their inner selves so naturally.

Filming 'Osama'Filming 'Osama'

Siddiq Barmak: It’s very natural that people who have collected all these pains, memories and experiences inside themselves now want to express the complexities of their lives. My opinion is that children especially hold a big part of the truth of all these disasters. They have their own experiences. Look at the improvisation of these boys and girls in Osama. There is a lot of dialogue that they created themselves. The Afghan people love entertainment, dancing, singing, music. It’s part of our culture.

My understanding is that this isn’t against Islam. I’m very, very sorry that sometimes the western media use terms like Islamic fundamentalism. Fanaticism is fanaticism and you can find these kinds of issues and problems in every religion and every culture, even democratic cultures. My belief is that it’s one of the worst things for people to abuse democratic concepts to reach very bad goals. This is fanaticism in a democratic way.

openDemocracy: There’s a Brazilian film, City of God, about life in the favelas, the slum areas, where all the actors are street children. The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami uses a similar technique in Ten, where the mother and the son share this relationship in real life.

Siddiq Barmak: There have always been filmmakers in every part of the world who discover a new way of telling a story. For example, Italian neo-realist cinema after 1945, where the filmmakers were looking for simplicity, wanted to make low-budget films, but could not find professional actors for the kind of film and story they were searching for.

This experience has many lessons for Afghanistan, one that we can combine with our own, old traditions of dastan, storytelling. We share with Iran, maybe also with Pakistan and India, a tradition where the saddhu (storyteller) would stand in the middle of the audience and tell a story. He would play all the characters, male and female. It was a very effective and simple method of telling stories of life that could illuminate the most profound questions about life and philosophy.

In India, there are some historical books – we call them Qalila al-jumna (Stories of the River) – where, like The Jungle Book, each character is an animal, symbolising a member of society. From kings and ministers, to servants and cooks. This is a simple way to transfer a very important thing to the audience, the listeners. It’s a good model for films, using tradition that connects with ordinary people’s lives.

OsamaOsama

Sometimes it’s good to have a Hollywood film as well, to make a contrast. Wolfgang Becker, the director of Goodbye, Lenin said that Hollywood films are like a very beautiful cocktail, with lots of different colours, but Iranian films are true waters from a spring. It’s something to do with the colours – very simple, but not simplistic, no fantastic lighting and decoration or glamorous casting. I think the new generation of filmmakers everywhere are looking for pure things.

The computerising and the digitalising should not allow us to forget that the main subject of film must be human. Many films, not only Hollywood films, want to show the future, but what is their subject? Without humans, it’s impossible to make a film.

The trouble with the Hollywood empire is that it occupies everything. For example, yesterday I wanted to see some real British films, and somebody told me that there are no British films – they are all American films. In other countries like Germany, even France and Italy, the film industry has problems. I feel that we need balance. Hollywood has the right to make films as well as a lot of money, but there needs to be an alternative.

The next generations

openDemocracy: So do you have an idea for your next project?

Iqbal coupletA she’r (couplet) from a poem by Iqbal, Painted by Aslam Khan.
O Friends! Eventhough it is evident in this day and age that it should be so, but the fact is that the seats of the Sufis are empty in their shrines.

Siddiq Barmak: Afghanistan has several neighbouring countries with a great literary heritage – Farsi, Turkish, Arabic. But the truly beautiful things are in Urdu. Urdu is the language of poetry. For Afghanistan, Mohammad Iqbal is a misaal, an exemplary poet. Inshallah, I might make a film one day on one of his great poems.

With Osama, I wanted to show something not too optimistic, not too cheerful. Next time, I want to show reality another way; maybe a black comedy. I will work with children again, but next time I really want to work with adults because they are making a lot of mistakes and I have to say something about that.

openDemocracy: When you look at Kabul and Afghanistan today, can you see and feel the change? In Osama, the streets were desolate and lonely, with an underlying sense of fear.

Siddiq Barmak: Yes, I see big changes. Life is coming back. There is a lot of rebellion now, a good thing. Though there are no big projects for street people.

In my opinion, Afghan people are very enthusiastic. They really want to see their life strong. They really wanted to join with the new civilisation of the world, to have a good contact and good relationship with the world, especially their neighbouring countries.

Sometimes, unfortunately, we have difficulties with Pakistan. The country’s leader, Pervez Musharraf, is under a lot of pressure from fundamentalist groups. I hope that he can find a good way to solve these problems, which can have a bad side-effect on our society as well.

But although I see changes for the better, our society faces severe financial difficulties. Some countries help us in the field of health. Hospitals were rebuilt by Chinese, Koreans, Germans, French, Indians. But, with an urban population now around 4 million, this is not enough even in Kabul – far less across the villages and districts.

It is so important to provide health and education to families in the village areas. This is just beginning. Sometimes it’s very difficult to accept that not everything can be solved overnight. We face a very strong reality. So it’s going to take a long time to solve our problems.

openDemocracy: Near the end of the film, there’s a big shot of the women’s jail, with the close up of the girl skipping. In reality, what happened to the prisoners – were they released?

Osama'Osama'

Siddiq Barmak: The last scene of the film symbolises the way that the women are inside something larger than a jail. They are inside the history of inequality between women and men.

Even in democratic societies, people think that there are two castes – male and female. It’s an untouchable, unknown battle – the fight between female and male. In eastern societies it’s more prominent, but it exists everywhere. Males are too much egoists. The male is worried about the female taking his position in society.

Today in Kabul, you can see that women have their own feminist organisations, offices, their own political party, a women-only radio station. The door is closed to men. This can become a kind of complex, unfortunately.

There is also very positive progress in these developments. But it must be remembered that Kabul is not Afghanistan. Action by and for women must take place everywhere, down to the smallest village. They still face awful difficulties. There are widows, women who have lost their brothers, husbands, fathers. There are lots of orphans. They don’t have any jobs or facilities, even basic things. They are homeless, they are begging on the streets.

It means that you have to start from the minimum: to build, to have windows in the houses, to find roofs for the house, animals, property. But even that is not enough. It’s very difficult to rebuild the human soul. I think that what we are building now, we will only see the fruits of in the next generation. Maybe even the generation after that.

openDemocracy’s world cinema coverage includes:

Jessica Hines, “Bollywood: beyond the boundary” (August 2001)

Ed Hayes, “10 x Ten: Kiarostami’s journey” (December 2002)

Tamara Barnett-Herrin, “Fiery death or watery grave?” (March 2003)

Ousmane Sembene, “Africa in the mirror of cinema” (November 2003)

Candida Clark, Cold Mountain up close” (January 2004)


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