Sonia Nassery Cole: "The Black Tulip"

Overcoming All Hurdles

As impossible as it may seem, a feature film about a family in Kabul that opens a literary café catering to artists and poets has been shot on location in Afghanistan. Despite death threats from the Taliban, the Afghan-American director and activist Sonia Nassery Cole succeeded in completing her film The Black Tulip. Homeira Heidary reports

As impossible as it may seem, a feature film about a family in Kabul that opens a literary café catering to artists and poets has been shot on location in Afghanistan. Despite death threats from the Taliban, the Afghan-American director and activist Sonia Nassery Cole succeeded in completing her film The Black Tulip. Homeira Heidary reports

Director Sonia Nassery Cole with an Afghan child (photo: Breadwinner Productions)
Despite death threats from the Taliban and massive security precautions, director Sonia Nassery Cole shot her film in Kabul

​​At the age of nine, she was already watching films with a critical eye. Her father was amazed when after a visit to the cinema in Kabul, she criticized Clint Eastwood in For a Fistful of Dollars. At the time, she said that she would one day show those in the film industry how to do things right. The girl was Sonia Nassery Cole.

What she didn't know then was that she would one day study film at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) and New York University (NYU), the two cities where she currently lives. Her role models today include Hitchcock and Fellini.

Her enthusiasm eventually led her to produce her first feature film. In the process, Nassery Cole has managed to shoot the first movie filmed on location in Afghanistan for over thirty years. Even the blockbuster The Kite Runner was filmed in neighbouring countries out of concerns for security.

The instability of the country, however, quickly caught up with the director. Soon after her arrival, a bomb blast shattered the windows of her hotel. The cameraman Keith Smith, who had previously worked for Hollywood director Oliver Stone, subsequently abandoned the team. Every day meant overcoming new hurdles and putting up with emotional stress. Nassery Cole received death threats from the Taliban, but kept them to herself to avoid upsetting her film crew. In order to confuse her adversaries, false film locations and production schedules were published.

Wine in teapots

Her film The Black Tulip centres around a family that opens a literary café with artistic pretensions after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Writers and poets are offered the opportunity to read their works, while wine is served from teapots.

The film shows a number of things that have probably not been seen on screen in Afghanistan in quite some time – if ever – such as people kissing in public, physical contact between men and women, and women swearing.

The Ariana cinema in Kabul (photo: Christopher Arian Cole)
The reopening of the Ariana cinema in Kabul: after the premiere, some members of the Afghan audience criticised the film as being unrealistic and claimed certain scenes showed the filmmaker's ignorance of Afghan culture

​​Nassery Cole's ambitious plans soon became known to the Taliban and attempts were made to sabotage the project. The subject of the film is the forgotten and no longer practiced culture that existed in Afghanistan before the turmoil and trauma of war – poetry, joie de vivre and peaceful coexistence.

The storyline is not unrealistic; music shops in Jalalabad have recently received threats from the Taliban. "Close your doors or we'll blow you up!"

Cinema reopened

The premiere of the film was spectacular, and the Ariana cinema in Kabul, which was closed by the Taliban, was reopened specially for the occasion. Despite all warnings, Sonia Nassery Cole attended the premiere, and contrary to all expectations, the event went off peacefully and civilly. What's more, the film has been nominated for an Oscar in both the best foreign language film and best soundtrack categories.

Nassery Cole even inspired the Afghan Minister of Information and Culture, Sayed Makhdum Rahin, who helped her overcome further hurdles. The Afghan Committee for Oscar nominations refused to accept the film, because they felt it was an affront to Islamic Afghanistan. The problem was with a scene in which an actor places a kiss on the forehead of a woman wearing a burqa. In the end, the minister himself signed the written confirmation that the Government of Afghanistan agreed to the film's submission.

There was criticism, nonetheless, from the Afghan viewing public. A funeral scene depicts earth being thrown into a grave – a practice unknown in Afghanistan. After the screening in the Ariana cinema, some of the audience complained that the filmmaker displayed an ignorance of Afghan culture.

The depiction of Taliban drinking alcohol and Afghan soldiers in a Kabul café was also seen as unrealistic by the audience.

The Lioness of Panjshir

​​In 1979, at the age of sixteen, Sonia Nassery Cole fled Afghanistan alone and moved to the USA. She never, however, lost her feelings of attachment to her native land. Shortly after her arrival in America, she wrote Ronald Reagan, who was president at the time, an endless stream of letters, criticising the West for standing by and allowing the genocide in Afghanistan to continue and demanding that Reagan take action.

She was unexpectedly invited to the White House for a talk with the president. Soon afterwards, she established the charity "Afghanistan World Foundation" and recruited numerous Hollywood stars such as Benicio del Toro, Tom Cruise and Charlize Theron as ambassadors for her cause. Benefit galas for refugees and women's rights have since become part of her life.

Her idol, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the prominent Mujahideen commander who fought against the Soviets and is a national hero in Afghanistan, expressed his support for her commitment during a meeting in Paris and called her the "Lioness of Panjshir" – a play on his legendary epithet, the "Lion of Panjshir."

As for the future of her country, Nassery Cole would like to see an Afghan president who is not afraid of the USA and who is able to unite the Afghan people. This has not been the case for thirty years, she says.

Homeira Heidary

© 2011

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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