Stories of resiliencedominated the first International FilmFestival on Womenin Afghanistan. NUPUR BASU

round 700 years ago, Queen Goharshad, wife of a Timouri heir, is said to have inspired a Renaissance in Herat, Afghanistan’s western province. Seven centuries later, a group of women filmmakers in Afghanistan have inspired a similar change in their war-ravaged country. The historic city of Herat, close to the Iran border and the setting for Khaled Hosseini’s celebrated novel A Thousand Splendid Suns , played host to the First International Film Festival on Women from March 6-9.

The citadel, better known as Qala Ikhtyaruddin or Arg and said to have been built by Emperor Alexander around 300 BC, made a stunning venue. Over the next three days, women, men and children braved news of bomb blasts, snowfall, rain, icy winds and bright sunshine to watch 36 films from 20 countries on the theme of women and the marginalised, even as dozens of armed Afghan National Police stood guard outside. Like the awesome venue, this festival for women to observe International Women’s Day was a daring first in Afghanistan. “This is an unbelievable event for us and gives us a lot of hope that things can change one day,” said Wida Saghani, a homemaker living with her children, husband and in-laws in Herat.

As a province that has produced the maximum number of women filmmakers in Afghanistan in the last 10 years, it was not surprising that Herat was the venue. Ironically, in recent years, the province has also reported the maximum number of self-immolations by Afghan women, frustrated by forced marriages, lack of access to education and work and domestic violence.

In a long tunnel-like structure in the Citadel, stories about women and people living on the margins unfolded on the screen. Afghan filmmaker Alka Sadat, who was born in Herat, explored a recurrent problem in her Violence Against Women: 10 Years On . “Although no longer in power, the Taliban, it appears, is present in the shadows and their brutal practices and policies towards women, especially in the countryside, are still profoundly visible,” says Sadat, whose debut documentary bagged the Afghan Peace Prize.

The theme of a country ravaged by civil war surfaced in different ways. Laila, directed Batool Moradi, was a poignant documentary on mental illness caused by the stress of war through the stories of women in the mental institution of Red Cresent Hospital in Kabul. Stories of resilience, of women fighting the most challenging odds, came up in story after story. Both Again Life, by award-winning director Hassan Fazeli, and Bearing the Weight, by Mona Haidari, tell the stories of Afghan women who pick up the pieces of their lives devastated by war and soldier on. Well-known director and actor Aqueela Rezai depicts how men’s addiction to alcohol and drugs affects women in The Road Above . Addiction is a recurrent theme in Afghan fiction and non-fiction films. Zabiullah Fahim in Flavour of Powder tells a terrifying tale of a poor addict who tears up his daughter’s belly and leaves his wife with the drug dealer in exchange for heroin. In Icy Sun, Ramin Mohammadi tells another chilling tale of a young woman who aspires to be an actor and ends up being raped and sold to a drug dealer.

The subject of immigration is also an important issue. In an Afghan and Slovakia co-production Light Breeze: Memories of an Immigrant Girl, Sahraa Karimi weaves a screenplay around her own experiences in a new country. Through poems and notes in her diary, the protagonist depicts her innermost feelings as an immigrant. In Where Do I Belong , a film from Iran, Mahvash Sheikholeslami tells the story of Iranian girls married to Afghan men living in Iran and Afghanistan.

“I find women filmmakers from Afghanistan very avant-garde, extremely brave. The women from Iran certainly have better technical expertise and support but, as far as depicting the feelings, emotions and storytelling go, women filmmakers from Afghanistan are on a par. Both tell their stories from the heart,” says Marziyeh Riahi, Editor-in-Chief of Short Film News from Iran.

Oscar-winning Afghan director Sediq Barmak was all praise for the courage shown by Afghan women filmmakers who are pursuing their creative talents, despite threats from fundamentalist forces. “This was a landmark festival for women in Afghanistan and filmmakers in this country and I hope that the government comes forward to support this festival every year in Herat.”

The festival was the brainchild of Roya Sadat, Afghanistan’s leading woman director, who was born and schooled in Herat. She chose Herat as the venue because “in a place where women do not really come out of their homes, they have stepped out to watch our festival. Nothing could give me more pleasure and joy.”

Afghanistan’s film industry, which was virtually decimated during the Taliban years, has been struggling to find its feet in the last 10 years. Director of Afghan Films Ibrahim Arify, who was at the festival, remarked that the number of women in Afghan films has been climbing. “What they need is co-productions, scholarships and training programmes.”

Besides films from Afghanistan and Iran, the festival included films from India, Venezuela, Tajikistan, Japan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Australia, Hong Kong, China, Turkey, France, Canada and Thailand.

As the curtains came down, the rich voices of Sufi singers and traditional Persian musical instruments filled the citadel square as hundreds of women, men and children enjoyed this cultural bonanza. The sounds of bomb blasts faded as Heratis once again relished this moment of deep freedom, even if momentarily, in the seat of culture in Afghanistan.

This is an unbelievable event for us and gives us a lot of hope that things can change one day.