In the opening frames of his documentary Dusty Night, director Ali Hazara follows a group of municipal workers as they descend from the mountains that surround Kabul into the city’s streets. Their job is to clean up the layers of dust – a task rife with futility given the notorious nature of Kabul’s dust, which hangs like a palpable, shimmering curtain over everything. As the night progresses, the film unfolds to a soundtrack of the steady swishing of brooms. Kabul, intermittently lit by passing vehicles, appears and vanishes like the snatches of conversation between the workers, and their exchanges with people out in the night. “That’s Afghanistan!” exclaims one, breathing heavily from the exertion of transferring mounds of silt across the road, “Corruption will never tire of this country.” As he works his way through the street, his words become a prayer and a reflection. “Oh, God … [have] mercy! [This] bloody dust. There’s no end to it. What is this earth! Dust, dust, dust …”
In a span of about 20 minutes, Dusty Night teases out several themes that define the city of its setting: violence, flux, internal displacement and nascent hopes. This in itself is impressive for a short documentary shot on a relatively small budget. But perhaps the film’s most significant achievement lies in its portrayal of night-time Kabul – a representation that is far removed from the newsreel images so familiar to audiences around the world. Boys play football in the darkened streets, moving the goalposts each time a truck thunders past. Fruit sellers carp about the dust ruining their displays. The workers take a break from their labour to enjoy a small fire in the cold night, fully aware that all the dust that they remove will be back the next day. Through the efforts of a new generation of Afghan directors like Hazara, Kabul is increasingly being revealed in a different light, in all its complexity and with all its contradictions.
The many faces of Kabul
One of the ironies in talking about films on Afghanistan is how little it involves talking about Afghan filmmakers. There have been exceptions, like Siddiq Barmak’s Taliban-era feature titled Osama, which won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004. Similarly, the works of sisters Roya Sadat (Three Dots, fiction) and Alka Sadat (Half Value Life, documentary) have been shown at film festivals around the world. Despite these and other remarkable works spanning the genres of fiction and documentary, many of the prominent films made on Afghanistan are those that are created by foreign directors and film crews, for audiences outside the country.
With its relative security and abundance of ‘newsworthy’ stories, Kabul is the centre for the industry of representation. Over time, the city has been reduced through visual shorthand, with a set of signifiers that are used by news channels and directors to indicate: this is Kabul. In 2006, when I first came to the city to work with Afghan media professionals, I carried the same vocabulary in my baggage. I found myself ticking off tanks on the streets, blue burqas, bullet-ridden walls, and narco-mansions against a mental list. It took several visits, many conversations, and encounters with an astonishing range of films – handed to me on flimsy flash drives, watched on friends’ computers or while hunched over mobile phone screens – to make me aware of the multiple readings of the city that existed, if only I knew where to look.
I got a sense of this abundance of perspectives after I watched a documentary titled Bricks and Dreams, directed by a young woman named Sediqa Rezaei, who is married to Ali Hazara. The two often contribute to each other’s films. Bricks and Dreams follows two children labouring in brick kilns, and captures the rhythm of their lives as well as the limited futures that they face. After watching the film, I had asked Rezaei about the location – a surreal landscape of fire and dust, lit by a crimson-tinged moon. “Kabul, just a little outside the city,” she had replied.
One of the ironies in talking about Afghan film is how little it involves talking about Afghans
Two years later, I met the couple again at their home in the neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, in the western part of the city. As we walked through the streets, Hazara explained that the entire area had been reconstructed from scratch after being almost completely destroyed during the civil war. We talked about how ironic it was that while there were several mosques on his street, there wasn’t a single park where his children could play. And then he said, gesturing at the houses, mosques and shops springing up around us, “Remember the brick kilns in Sediqa’s film? These are the places that those kids are building.”
As we walked ahead in silence, the city shifted for me, subtly moving from the level of spectacle to that of experience. From being a random assortment of muddy streets, Kabul recast itself as a living, pulsing system, connected in invisible yet tangible ways. I had the same experience when I watched Dusty Night a few months later. Some of its sequences are shot on the same streets through which we had walked on that rainy day. As the frames flickered past, resonating with my memory, Kabul emerged with a rare clarity – one that evades capture even by the finest technological equipment or narrative finesse, and is rooted in intimacy and an awareness of the city’s bends and kinks.
Like in most places, there are all kinds of films being made in Kabul, across a range of styles and themes. Ali Hazara’s film is produced by the Paris-based Ateliers Varan, which runs workshops with Afghan documentary filmmakers. Another documentary from the Varan series is called The Postman. The film follows the main character, Khan Agha, as he tracks down elusive addresses on his bicycle or on foot. Often, the task resembles a treasure hunt, as he checks and rechecks incorrect or incomplete addresses with shopkeepers, passersby and security guards.
It takes time to realise this, but most representations of Kabul are devoid of interiors
The director of the film, Wahid Nazir, is somewhat removed in age from the younger directors who are part of Kabul’s current film ‘scene’. Perhaps it is this difference in generation and memory that accounts for the thread of melancholy that runs through several of the exchanges in his film. The postman wanders like a stranger through his own city, which has changed too much, too fast. Standing at a crossroad, Khan Agha has a conversation with a bulky security guard about the phantom addresses he is searching for. “You and me, we are old Kabulis, we know that the numbers should start from that side,” says the guard expansively. “But all these new folks who made the new masterplan for the city, they have no clue. They got it all wrong.”
One of the most moving scenes in the film shows Khan Agha good-humouredly recalling an experience while delivering a letter from the United States several years ago. “I wasn’t like this, I was a bit better dressed. The economic situation was better, I looked smarter,” he says as an explanation for the misunderstanding that occurred when he rang the doorbell. “They thought I was a friend of their son’s, and had come carrying his letter for them,” he says. The family invited him inside, and began plying him with tea and questions about the well-being of their child. “Majbooran,” under compulsion, Khan Agha had to go along with the misunderstanding. “I told them he was well, he is fine … he has put on some weight, Mashallah,” he recounts, as his colleagues chuckle with pleasure.
But beneath the laugher, there is no mistaking the tug of sadness – familiar to Afghans across generations – in a splintered family taking pleasure in hosting a visitor from a faraway land, who comes bearing a token from their absent child. Even after the passage of years, Khan Agha’s voice betrays his nervousness from that time; a stray word or a difficult question could have shattered the delicate web of courtesy he had walked into. The sequence plays out a portrait of old Kabul, of a form of grace that persists even when the world that nurtured it has long been shattered.
A city recognising itself
In contrast, the concept of The Kabul Cards is entirely, and almost fiercely, young and modern. The short documentary is unusual in its form and content, being a collaboration between three young women using small handheld cameras. In an early sequence, the girls walk through a mall wielding their cameras – capturing shaky images of mannequins wearing glitzy dresses, families out shopping, and men who tell them to stop filming. Later, they walk down the streets, and one of them munches on something out of a packet. “What’s that?” asks one of the friends, and together they grope for the name of the food. “Chocolate doughnut,” she eventually pronounces, proud and a little self-conscious.
It takes time to realise this, but most representations of Kabul are devoid of interiors, and are usually restricted to shots of its stunning locales (mountains and ruins), or public spaces like streets and parks. The Kabul Cards is appealing because it partly unfolds inside Kabuli homes, where families grow, children bicker and kitchens rattle with the sounds of dinner being prepared. It is a rare window into the mundane everyday existence of families living through conflict. In particular, the film captures the emptiness of evenings in the city, as faced by a generation of children growing up indoors as the world outside their walls collapses. In one sequence, the director tries to talk to three young boys hunched over laptops and mobile phones, their faces lit by the silvery glow of the screens. “What games do you have on that?” she asks, and one of the boys rattles off the answer without looking up. “IGI [I’m Going In], IGI 2 Covert Strike, GTA [Grand Theft Auto], GTA Andreas, GTA Vice City, Tekken 3, Tron Legacy,” he recites, narrating a list of blood-soaked recreations that would be familiar to many American children.
As most filmmakers living and working in Kabul will tell you, certain kinds of films are easy – or easier – to make, secure funding for, and exhibit at festivals
The strength of The Kabul Cards and similar works lies in their breaking of stereotypes, and in providing the ‘revelation’ that there is more to Kabul than war. But paradoxically, Kabul is a city at war. This contradiction is explored in all its layers in Hamid Alizadeh’s Dehbori Checkpoint, a low-key documentary about the lives of policemen who man the city’s streets. For most of its duration, the film moves with the men as they patrol the streets, swap macho war stories, smoke, and listen to the radio to kill time. Towards the end of the film, a soldier feeds leftovers of the men’s meals to the birds fluttering around him. “I’ll add some for the ants. And some for the birds. That’s their share,” he says, scattering the food on the ground. “I’ll stop for a few minutes to look at them.”
It is obvious that he enjoys this pause, a brief interregnum in the constant swirl of the city around him. “Afghanistan is a country … a dangerous country. The enemy doesn’t leave us alone. We ourselves have to try to calm our country down. We have to be kind to animals, love them,” he muses, as birds peck on the food in the winter sun. His routine soon intrudes on his idyll.
They [the men] will be hungry soon. I fed the ants. We have to think of the guys, now … Goodbye, friends [he tells the animals]. I have to think of the others now. I’ll think about your lunch. It’ll be rice. I’m thinking of you all.
As most filmmakers living and working in Kabul will tell you, certain kinds of films are easy – or easier – to make, secure funding for, and exhibit at festivals. Being in the city today, towards the end of the latest international military intervention, brings with it a sense of isolation from the outside world and from the rules that apply to most places. Perhaps it is because of the awareness, cast from experience, of the ephemeral nature of the city’s connection with other places, but there is a feeling that the void from just a few years ago may well return. This feeling is most evident among the younger directors, many of whom grew up abroad in Pakistan or Iran. Through their works, they simultaneously discover and negotiate with the homeland that they have never known, to which they have returned – marked by their years as refugees – and which seems ready to be forgotten once again.
This sense of fragility in the interactions between Kabul and the world is clearest in Ghafar Azad’s work A Letter to Light. Using the docudrama format, Azad tells the story of an 11-year-old boy who is slowly losing his vision. “Each day may be the last time that you see the flower’s leaves. If this day happens, you will try to imagine them. It will happen gradually and you will get used to it,” says the voiceover, moving between the boy and his ‘guardian angel’ – a young girl dressed in white.
In an early sequence, the boy describes how he became aware of his illness while playing on the roof of his house with his friends:
I asked my friend to show me a building. He was trying to point it out to me but I couldn’t see it, even though I was trying very hard to focus on it … My friend gave me his glasses. When I put on the glasses, I saw a different world from the one I was seeing before. A new world.
As the boy narrates his story, the camera zooms in and out, gaining and losing focus on the city’s darkening skyline. As the boy’s gaze slowly turns inwards, the city vanishes except in his imagination – a potent metaphor for the process of withdrawal unfolding in the country as Afghanistan prepares to become invisible to the world once again.
Perhaps the imminence of this invisibility is why everyone is in such a hurry in Kabul. Naturally, this is not limited to the field of cinema. But the urgency seems to have been fervently embraced by young filmmakers, who are finding innovative ways of overcoming the formidable hurdles they face. The city is home to several collectives of filmmakers, many of them self-taught and working with what they can find – from handycams to mobile phones – fuelled equally by passion and sheer bloody-mindedness.
One of the most interesting films created by one such collective is a two-minute fiction simply titled !, which unfolds over a single shot. The film begins with the camera moving from a blue sky to a stream, before traversing a length of rocket shells that demarcate a graveyard. After capturing its length and scale, the camera moves away to reveal two young boys posing for their picture in front of the graveyard – a cheeky image that subtly challenges the incessant ‘death and doom’ representations of their city and their future. As the friends click the photograph, the camera comes to a full circle and moves back to the contemplative blue sky.
Although it was made in Afghanistan, the film was not shot in Kabul. But it could easily have been set in one of the many graveyards that dot the city. Perhaps it would be accurate to describe it as the Kabul that exists everywhere, or more truthfully, as the Kabul that exists only in the imaginations of the city’s storytellers, who pick out its images to cast forth. Either way, these films can be collectively read as a valuable record of this particular moment in the life of the city, and perhaps as the foundation of an Afghan cinema that is increasingly rooted in its own reality.
This article partly draws from the process of curating a special section for the Mumbai Film Festival 2012 titled ‘Kabul Fresh: New Voices in Afghan Cinema’.
Taran N Khan is a journalist who frequently travels to Kabul.