Afghan cinema visits Berlin Film Festival

February 16, 2019 08:36 pm | Updated 09:10 pm IST

A poster of Mariam Ghani’s ‘What We Left Unfinished’.

A poster of Mariam Ghani’s ‘What We Left Unfinished’.

Among the movies screened this year at the Berlin Film Festival were two documentaries on Afghanistan. And their importance in the context of contemporary Afghan politics could not be missed.

“We wanted to share our journey and all the things we faced,” said Hassan Fazili after the premiere of his film Midnight Traveller . Mr. Fazili and his family members filmed the refugee trail through Europe using smartphones.

With much intimacy, the movie shows the struggle that many refugees face while trying to reach a safe place in Europe. By revealing details on the police brutalities faced by the people, the film also tells that violence and racism are present more than ever in the Western world.

Mr. Fazili’s project was supported by professional filmmakers and editors. “We are still in this country as refugees and hope that our asylum requests get accepted soon,” Mr. Fazili said after the screening of his film. “Germany continues to deport Afghan refugees and that's terrible,” he said.

Midnight Traveller does not solely portray the dangers of the trail to Europe. It also underlines daily life in war-torn Afghanistan, which Mr. Fazili, who had a cafe in Kabul, was forced to leave after he faced threats from militant groups.

The fallen revolutionaries

Another movie at the film festival ties Afghanistan’s present to its past. In What We Left Unfinished , Afghan-American filmmaker Mariam Ghani — daughter of President Ashraf Ghani — discusses five propaganda movies from the 1980s produced by Kabul’s Communist regimes. The Afghan Communists came to power in 1978 after staging a bloody coup against the government of Mohammed Daoud Khan. This event, called the ‘Saur Revolution’, was the topic of some of their propaganda movie efforts. “Outside Afghanistan, many people don’t even know about the country’s Communist history. And even among many Afghans, it’s barely understood,” said Ms. Ghani.

She believes that the movies from that time reflected the lives of a narrow group of people and the urban elites who referred to themselves as the “enlightened people”. In all these films, the Communists are portrayed as “revolutionaries” defending the country against ‘barbarians’ and ‘foreign stooges’.

Ms. Ghani and her team visited actors and directors who had worked in the propaganda films. Some of their interviewees were all praise for the 1980s Kabul and described the period as a ‘golden era’ for Afghan cinema. “I think it’s difficult to expect that anyone today will tell you faithfully how they felt about it at that time...” Ms. Ghani said. “Now, we all know what was really happening. The historical facts are clear.”

According to Ali M. Latifi, the film’s field producer, some of the people they interviewed did not try to hide their sympathies for Kabul’s Communist regimes, which killed and tortured hundreds of thousands of people.

Ms. Ghani had extensive access to the ‘Afghan Film Archive’ in Kabul, where many Communist films and other material are stored. In 2018, the archive was moved to the presidential palace in Kabul. Some Afghans criticised this step and the role played by Ms. Ghani, who had been working on the project for years, in the move. However, according to the Brooklyn-based filmmaker, the aim was to digitise the whole archive, including all the finished and unfinished films, as soon as possible, and share it with the Afghan public. She believes that the more the films travel, the greater the impact they will have as history lessons and tools for reconciliation.

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