Interview with Siddiq Barmak

The Front Lines

In 2003, film director Siddiq Barmak shot the first highly-acclaimed Afghan feature film "Osama", based on the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He just completed shooting on a new film project, entitled "Opium War". Martin Gerner spoke with him in Kabul

In 2003, film director Siddiq Barmak shot the first highly-acclaimed Afghan feature film based on the rule of the Taliban. The film,"Osama", received a series of awards and accolades. The film marked the return of Afghan culture on the international stage. Siddiq Barmak just completed shooting on a new feature-length film project, entitled "Opium War". Martin Gerner spoke with him in Kabul

Siddiq Barmak (photo: &copy
Siddiq Barmak: "If the West truly condemns the harvesting of opium, it also has to stop buying the drug!"

​​Mr. Barmak, what is your latest film about?

Siddiq Barmak: Two American army soldiers survive a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. They meet a family of Afghan farmers who have lost their fields, and the father is forced to plant poppies.

How difficult was it to make a movie about this subject in Afghanistan?

Barmak: We wanted to plant a poppy field to shoot some scenes in. So of course we had to obtain prior approval of the Afghan government, and speak with the ISAF and the US military. During the course of the filming, the field slowly dried up. Ultimately we burned it.

Other than that, the film itself takes no position on the strategy behind the fight against drugs in Afghanistan. But we have an opium war in Afghanistan, and like any war, it produces casualties. But this film is not only about the war in Afghanistan. I'm trying to show that war in general is a tragedy. Everyone is a victim of this war, whether he is Afghan or American, black or white.

The government of Afghanistan is under a great deal of international pressure because of the poppy plantations. Aren't you taking a stand, merely by making a movie on this topic?

A field of opium poppies in Afghanistan (photo: AP)
More than 90% of illegal opium, which is used to make heroin, comes from Afghanistan

​​Barmak: It's easy to point fingers at others. If the West condemns the growing of poppy, it also has to stop buying the drug. Where is the market for it? So I also want to get people thinking about the younger generation in the West, and its social problems.

And other than the problems of Western society?

Barmak: It's a rather harsh statement, but I am convinced that we are heading for the end. It's a pessimistic film. Maybe I'm hoping to shake people up. Rather like a doctor who prepares a patient for the worst by telling him the bitter truth.

How do you see the future of Afghanistan?

Barmak: I'm not certain whether Afghanistan will have a better future. The international community is engaged here. At the same time, different intelligence services do their business here. In my movie, the Americans are a symbol for the entire international community in Afghanistan.

How do you judge the efforts being made to rebuild the country?

Barmak: We thought that with the departure of the Taliban, the Afghan government and the international community would have a very detailed reconstruction plan. Many foreigners, whether Europeans or Americans, claimed to be experts on Afghanistan.

But they have no good advice to give to the people. They don't know Afghanistan; there is a lack of knowledge about the country. Afghanistan is totally different than Bosnia or East Timor. Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic nation, with many languages and very diverse traditions.

Is that also one of the reasons the Taliban are so popular? Or is it primarily for political reasons?

Barmak: Of course many Taliban are doing Pakistan's bidding. But some are just normal people. Unemployed people for example, mujahedin from the war against the Soviet Union. They have been disarmed, and they are now destitute. Take for example a former army general, a man who enjoyed authority. Now he's selling potatoes on the street. We should see to it that we find work for these people as soon as possible.

Then there are American soldiers searching the houses. Often they completely disregard the culture and traditions of these families.

Yesterday a friend of mine, who lives on the road between downtown Kandahar and the airport, told me about his daughter.

Five years ago, when the Americans drove past his house, his little daughter ran to the roadside and waved to the soldiers. Today she no longer waves - she throws stones at them.

Is there anything Afghanistan and the international community can do to solve the opium problem?

Barmak: According to the latest figures, about 1.5 million people in Afghanistan use drugs. Many of them have no hope, especially those of the generation that fought in the war. After defeating the Russians they hoped to be rewarded. But building a road between Kabul and Kandahar is not what they had hoped for. These people paid a very high price.

2.5 million Afghans died in the war. Those who survived often have a lot of problems to deal with. But they have stopped communism. That was not only an issue for Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the front line in the fight against communism.

And everyone benefited from that. I'm convinced that the reunification of Germany was also based on Afghans loosing their blood against the Russians. America also profited. If the Russians had been successful, they would have reached the Indian Ocean. I think the world is forgetting this. It is probably very human to forget. But we are forgetting our yesterdays.

Martin Gerner

© 2007

Translated from the German by Mark Rossman

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

Drugs Problem Deeply Ingrained in Society
In Afghanistan, the world's main producer of opium, poppy cultivation was down for the first time since 2001. However, a UN report warned that it could go up again this year. Ratbil Shamel reports

Dilemmas of Fighting Drugs
In times of hardship and war, cultivating opium became a strategy of survival for farmers in Afghanistan. The fact that they have no sense of wrongdoing makes it difficult to draft policies to stall production. By Conrad Schetter

Website Siddiq Barmak

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