Kabul International Film Festival

The Screen as Political Battlefield

For the second year in a row, the International Film Festival in Kabul was overshadowed by violence, but the screenings of approximately 20 current productions from Afghanistan and neighboring countries were outwardly unaffected by the attack. Martin Gerner was on the scene

Opening ceremony at the 3rd International Kabul Film Festival (photo: Martin Gerner)
Cultural life in the midst of violence: despite the suicide bombing in front of the Indian Embassy, Afghan actor Mamnoon Maqsoodi and German cultural attaché Rita Sachse-Toussaint celebrated the opening of the International Kabul Film Festival

​​Judging from the awards ceremony, there is no need to worry about the future of the Kabul Film Festival. Afghan actor Mamnoun Maqsoudi, who served as master of ceremonies, circumnavigated the cultural obstacles between Orient and Occident with urbanity and humor and added a luster to the film festival, which is still in its infancy, that the dust-filled metropolis of four million inhabitants would like to experience more often. Every year, the Kabul Film Festival begins with a curious ritual: the previous year's winner is shown at the opening. "Gozargah," a documentary about the Afghan civil war, was followed by an Arte production on the Chanel fashion house in Paris. Traumatizing images of bloodshed segued into Karl Lagerfeld posing and small talk about a haute couture vest priced at 28,000 euros. The Afghan audience took it calmly and with curiosity, neither disgusted nor fascinated. The Franco-German TV channel contributes half a dozen out-of-competition films each year. The Goethe Institut in Kabul and its French counterpart sponsor the festival, providing financial support. "Hot Love" censors itself

photo: Martin Gerner
Smokin' match: "The Last Shout" is only the second Afghan animated film ever made

​​This year, the official competition, with films from Iran, Pakistan, India, and Tajikistan, was a combination of running in place and a quantum leap. Most of the Afghan films still lack a compelling dramaturgy. The acting is frequently exaggerated. The camera work, editing, and sound are not as technically flawless or sophisticated as international viewers are accustomed to. The cartoons, on the other hand, are improving; "The Last Shout" is only the second Afghan animated film ever made. In it, two matches meet, one male, the other female. They flirt with each other, and at the end their phosphorous heads ignite each other, like a kiss. It all takes place in the middle of a street. This example shows clearly what a huge gulf still exists between hope and reality in Afghanistan. The director initially wanted to call his film "Hot Love" but opted for a less provocative title. A precautionary measure that could certainly be described as self-censorship. Much experience – and no technical know-how

photo: Martin Gerner
Afghanistan's Minister for Culture criticised the import of colourful Bollywood films - their popularity is, however, soaring, as this Kabul billboard demonstrates

​​Subjects like forced marriage, family violence, and poverty dominate the works screened at the festival. "People in Afghanistan have much more experience of life than people in the west," says Afghan director Saraah Karimi. "What they lack is the technical knowledge to translate these stories into film." The war in parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan is not seen in the films. Obviously the risk of filmmakers literally becoming targets of Taliban, NATO, or Afghan security forces is too great. Unlike in Iran and the western world, there is not a penny of government support for film directors. This actually presents an opportunity for donor countries to provide direct assistance in this area. Instead, aid organizations and embassies commission films intended to promote health or political education. Although local filmmakers have work as a result, the subject matter is determined on the outside. Campaign against media freedom and permissiveness Many Afghan filmmakers say proudly that they are everything rolled into one – screenwriter, director, cameraman, editor, and producer. What is lacking is a film school that teaches the fundamentals. "At the university there is not even a DVD player where students can watch a few classics of film history," says another director. "And if there are a couple of nude scenes in a film, it quickly becomes a major problem." Conservative powers determine the agenda. At the opening, Abdul Karim Khurram, Afghanistan's Minister for Culture, expressed a desire for more domestic productions instead of Bollywood and Hollywood films. He is currently waging a campaign against Indian soap operas on Afghan television – with dubious success. Images and the screen continue to be a political battlefield in Afghanistan, however. In this respect, the theme of this year's festival – "Creation is not enough" – allows multiple interpretations. Martin Gerner © Qantara.de 2008 Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson

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