TARAN N. KHAN
Siddiq Barmak on how his films are drawn from what's happening in Afghanistan
`Cinema must guard against people forgetting their own tragedies. If we cannot remember the bad things, we cannot feel the renewal of life.'
SIDDIQ BARMAK used to drive himself around Kabul in a beat-up old van. At traffic lights, a crowd would gather around the director. "They would ask, `Ustad, how much till the next stop', thinking I was a local bus driver looking for passengers!" he laughs. Fame sits lightly on the shoulders of the man who put Afghanistan's cinema back on the map. "Osama", the first feature made after the Taliban regime, is the story of a young girl forced to masquerade as a boy to feed her family. The film captured the attention of audiences and critics across the world. But for Barmak, the greatest compliment comes from its resonance for the audience at home. "Every Afghan family I know of has seen `Osama', because it shows the reality of their lives. They see their own faces in the film. Of course, it is just a drop in the ocean of suffering this country has been through."
Born in Panjshir, a small town in the mountains, Barmak moved to Kabul as a child with his family. "My father was a police officer. He was very fond of detective movies, especially Italian and French ones." In the Kabul of plush cinema halls running films from across the world, where families took outings and friends caught up, Barmak "met cinema". The first film he saw was "Lawrence of Arabia", dubbed in Farsi. "I remember being fascinated by the shaft of light coming from behind. I wondered, what is behind it?" For a long time after that, he dreamt of being a projectionist. Instead, he ended up getting a scholarship in 1982 to the VGIK film institute in Moscow. "I had several Indian colleagues, and we'd get together to speak Urdu as a break from learning all that difficult Russian." His Urdu lessons had commenced years ago, with "Mughal-e-Azam". Like most Afghans of his generation, Barmak grew up on a steady diet of Indian films and still nourishes a sentimental regard for Lata and Rafi duets. "Indian cinema has given a lot to the Afghan people," he says "They always show a happy ending, which may be unrealistic but it creates a sense of optimism." His favourite Indian directors include Shyam Benegal and Ray, whose work he first saw in Russia. Barmak also confesses to a weakness for Yash Chopra romances with good melodies. "In Afghanistan, new filmmakers are now creating love stories, comedies, films on the current state of society. We need stories of hope and laughter that move beyond the past." Forced to leave Kabul barely two weeks after the Taliban took over, Barmak spent years in exile in Peshawar, with his family. "Even as a refugee, I kept trying to make some short films on VHS, kept looking for subjects, just so that I would not forget the fact that I was a filmmaker." The screenplay of "Osama" was written during these tumultuous years and is deeply marked by the experience of exile. "It is a very strange experience to be a complete outsider, different in every way from the community," he says. The daily humiliations he faced, especially the experience of being mocked at by a petty official for the presumption of calling himself an Afghan filmmaker, are fresh in his mind.Barmak returned to Kabul in January 2002, a day he recalls with deep emotion and clear detail. "As I descended from the mountains into the city, it started snowing. I realised I was seeing snow after over two years. All I could think was, this is my snow, my mountains, my people. Coming home is like finding a piece of yourself that you had lost." The euphoria was tempered by the discovery that he had returned to a deeply damaged people. "Many of the women were still in their burqas, they couldn't believe they were actually free. Most of my friends had forgotten that they were creative people, even human beings with the power to express". To pick up the pieces, Barmak revived the Mobile Cinema tradition, which produced and screened short films across Afghanistan's provinces. "In one village, the mullah allowed us to screen on the white wall of the mosque." The largest show was in Bamiyan, against the backdrop of the destroyed Buddha statues. "Cinema must guard against people forgetting their own tragedies. It must remind them, this was your life, this was what fundamentalism looked like. If we cannot remember the bad things, we cannot feel the renewal of life."
His own new film, to be shot in June, is a dark comedy, tentatively titled "The Opium War". "It is about people from totally different backgrounds who come together because they discover the common platform of humanity. But political situations eventually separate them." The theme is extremely relevant in Afghanistan today, given its encounter with the United States in highly volatile circumstances. After the success of his non-professional cast in "Osama", Barmak plans to use "real people" in his new film as well. "It makes sense for a certain type of realistic cinema. They are totally natural, because they are playing themselves." During "Osama", Barmak would remind Marina Golbahari, the lead actress, of incidents from her own life to draw out her emotions. "She was acting out her own tragedy. Now, if I make her do the same role again, she will not be able to play it, because her experience has changed," he smiles. The rare restraint and effect with which Barmak channelises his cast's experiences, their lives and their emotions into his work, bears testimony to his skill as a filmmaker. It also represents the vital link between his cinema and the people it represents. From this link, he feels, a language can emerge that will reclaim Afghanistan's shattered heritage and give it a voice.
As an extension of this belief, Barmak is part of several social initiatives that seek out fresh talent, particularly from the margins of society. With Mohsin Makhmalbahf, "a long-time friend of Afghan cinema", he holds workshops and training for young filmmakers, especially underprivileged children and women. His dream of a film institute in Kabul, however, seems distant. "Thousands of dollars of aid come into Afghanistan every day, but none of it is for cinema," he says wryly. The dollars are transforming Afghanistan in fundamental and often cruel ways. "We are jumping from one dark society to another, with its own problems, like inequality and extreme poverty." Watching his beloved Kabul, still reeling from the Taliban's ravages, being overrun by shiny shopping malls, land cruisers and widows begging on every street can be demoralising. For Barmak, it seems safest to wish for small things right now. "My son wants to go to a school where the grass is green and there are trees to climb. I haven't found one like that in Kabul yet, but that's what I'm looking for."