Interview with Siddiq Barmak

An Afghan View of Suffering

"Osama" is the first full-length film to emerge from Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime. It is an attempt to come to terms with the country's history – and it already won a Golden Globe Award. Amin Farzanefar spoke with the film's director, Siddiq Barmak

Siddiq Barmak (photo: DELPHI FILMVERLEIH)
Siddiq Barmak

​​In his film "Osama", Siddiq Barmak has attempted to bring to the screen the horrors of life under the Taliban – appropriately enough, from a female point of view. Osama is the tragic story of a young girl growing up in Afghanistan: Because females are not allowed to leave the house unless accompanied by a male, a mother sends her daughter out of the house to look for work, disguised as a boy called Osama. But she lives in constant fear that her daughter might one day be discovered.

Barmak filmed this sad tale not (as might be expected) from the comfortable distance of someone living in exile. He has dedicated himself for many years to making films in Afghanistan and the Pakistani border region – occasionally somewhat too one-sidedly: His early propaganda film "The Invasion Files", made in 1997, glorified the revolution led by the Mujaheddin under Ahmad Shah Massud against the Taliban fighters. In so doing, he kept silent about the power struggles among the warlords themselves and about the extremism among his own people.

On the other hand, his new film "Osama" is remarkably well balanced, and its oppressive, intensive and very realistic images depicting the reign of terror are very convincing.

"Osama" is an impressive film. A complex and sad story is told with the clarity of a fable, against a colorful background …

Siddiq Barmak: Yes, it is my personal belief that even the most complicated situations and problems can be told using very simple language. Some authors and filmmakers try to move difficult topics into the forefront – modernists, post-modernists – but we want to keep our own audience in mind, those who are not familiar with the ABCs of cinema.

​​You have called this a "necessary" film, a story that needed to be told. For Afghanistan itself, or for the world, so that we can understand what really happened – or for both?

Barmak: Both. You get most of your information from television, radio and newspapers. And even the documentaries reflect merely a very special European way of seeing things, or at least a non-Afghan way of seeing things. What I wanted to do was portray the experience of suffering from an Afghan perspective. We are the ones who can best tell the story of our pain, because we are the ones who experienced it. And relating this story required a different kind of story-telling than that of television reporting.

And yet in spite of all its poetic and surrealistic scenes and set pieces, Osama seems very real, as if we were watching the proceedings of a Sharia court. How were you able to tell this story with such immediacy, with such directness? Were you there in the Taliban years?

​​Barmak: I was only in Kabul for two weeks after the Taliban gained control there. Then I went to Northern Afghanistan for two and a half years; the Taliban were not in control there. In the last two years, that is from 1999 until the end of the Taliban regime, I lived in Pakistan. Refugees were constantly arriving there from Kabul and other cities, and they told the strangest stories. So some of the events were not very far away. What was ultimately important was that we actually made the film in Kabul – with people who had actually experienced the tragedy personally, up close.

You worked with amateur actors. Where did you find them?

Barmak: Everywhere: We met Marina by coincidence, on the street, where she was begging. The young boy who plays Espandi was catching stray dogs so he could sell them. And the people we used to portray the Taliban were residents at a refugee camp. They only gradually came to realize that they were in fact simple foot soldiers of the Taliban. Working with us on the film was their way of serving penitence and making atonement.

Particularly now that the Afghan film community is regrouping and rebuilding, it is interesting to raise the question of the importance of cinema and the role of the artistic film in society.

Barmak: Some people want art for art's sake, others want art for the masses. For me it's about both. Film has the potential to play an important role in a country in which 80 percent of the population has hardly any education and can barely read or write. Images can produce tremendous change here. Cinema, with its colors, its characters, people adapt themselves again and again to this art form, become accustomed to it.

For example, we have initiated a project called Mobile Cinema, with which we intend to travel throughout the country in buses and show various films, in an effort to bring a positive, life-affirming message to the people rebuilding their lives after the war. And also so they will have something to laugh about again.

Afghanistan has been through a turbulent period of history, and it is a multi-ethnic nation that is subjected to many different influences. Has the country been able to develop a uniform style of its own, an independent aesthetic, such as has occurred in the Iranian film community?

​​Barmak: Iran, where more than 60 films are produced each year, has managed to develop a story-telling style of its own, but Afghanistan has produced no more than 42 or 43 films in the entire 100-year history of the cinema. The first Afghan film was made in 1947, and because Afghan women were not allowed to act in it, the filmmakers relied on Indian actresses.

In fact, there has been no continuous, on-going development over the years, so it has not been possible for an individual, independent style to arise. For that to happen, we need a long-term effort and more directors.

How many directors are there in Afghanistan at the moment?

Barmak: At the moment there are 12 filmmakers altogether, four of whom are women who have made some impressive documentaries and are now beginning to develop feature films. We still have a few classrooms, but no institutes of our own to support us in our work like the Goethe Institute in Germany. And yet "Afghan Film" itself, as well as a company called Ayneh, and the University of Kabul and other institutions, offer special courses in script writing, acting, film criticism. I hope all these initiatives can be gathered together under one roof soon. I’m very optimistic about the future.

Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de 2004

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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