Q&A with with award-winning Afghan actress Ms. Leena Alam on the film industry in Afghanistan

Q: Let us start with you. How did you enter the realm of Afghan films and acting?

A: I was initially doing some acting and modelling in the San Francisco Bay Area, but not with the clear purpose of what exactly I wanted to do within acting. Then just before the collapse of the Taliban, I went to visit Afghanistan. That visit changed my perspective. I saw first-hand the state of the people, especially women and children. This gave me a new purpose in my acting career. Thereafter I visited Afghanistan each year and from 2007, stayed there for a very long time. I picked those roles and films that had something to say, that held a strong message on social issues relating to women, children etc. I wanted to raise my voice on these sensitive issues through the characters I played in my films. This became my core purpose to move further into acting. I wanted my roles and films to be a medium to talk about these issues. These films largely fall in the genre of art movies, some of them even protest movies.

UntitledAs a Jury Member at Adelaide Film Festival, Australia 

Q: Tell us about the Afghan film industry? India has art movies, commercial movies and now an emerging third genre, i.e. meaningful cinema which also sees commercial success. What sorts of films are being made there?

A: Cinema is still taking its baby steps in Afghanistan. During the Taliban era, a lot of film records and archives were destroyed and everything had to start anew. Like I said, I have been mostly involved in the art film genre. Afghanistan also has some movies in the commercial film genre, what you call masala movies in India. But these are not really the sort of films that middle-class families would typically go to watch. Within the art film genre, not many releases are made per year because of a number of challenges. But there are a lot of passionate and interested people who are working in the industry and helping keep it alive. I am sure that with time we can achieve a lot in Afghan cinema. The third genre that you mentioned, which is now picking up in India, sounds exciting. It would be great to see that style of film making pick up in Afghanistan, films which everybody can relate to. After all, most of the commercial movies are not what families would watch, and not everyone understands the underlying message of an art film. But this mixed genre sounds ideal. I would definitely like to see it continue in India and also pick up in Afghanistan.

UntitledWith friends at the set

Q: So what are the main challenges that are affecting the industry’s growth?

A: The main challenge is security. Our crew and cast have faced situations of security threats by miscreants. That created havoc with our shooting schedule, especially when we shot on locations outside of Kabul. Many Afghans do not really want to produce and finance films in Afghanistan due to these security issues. The second challenge is funding. In Afghanistan, a lot of investment flowed in from various governments during the rebuilding after the Taliban’s collapse. But hardly any of this has gone into the field of arts in general, and definitely not in films specifically. If security improves, perhaps we will see more funding interest. Another challenge is that we do not have any training facilities. Most of the people working in this field are self-trained or were amateurs who learned on the job. I have myself worked on a few short films of upcoming film makers to give them a boost. A lot of trained film-makers, artistes and professionals from this field left Afghanistan over the years of war. They do not live here anymore. So there is a shortage of trained talent, and of training facilities. We tried to get a leading Indian film maker to come here and give a short-term workshop to our people as a training, since setting up a training school would be far more expensive. But it was difficult to raise the funding even for such a workshop. Hardly anyone here wants to come forward to produce films. Also, Afghans have grown up seeing Indian films. My own favourites are Anurag Kashyap, Mani Ratnam, Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Subhash Ghai. But this also means the viewer’s appetite for Afghan films becomes less to that extent. Most of the films made here are on a very low budget, sometimes even out of one’s own pocket. The highest budgeted film made in Afghanistan in recent times was $1.5 million for a French-Afghan production (Kabuli Kid), and the lowest budget is about $2000. That is the sort of numbers we are talking about. So one cannot really compare this film industry to those in the neighbouring countries! So while the few art movies we released each year have been highly acclaimed at international film festivals and have won many awards, these challenges continue to impede the growth of the industry.

UntitledWith cast & crew members of Shereen drama 

Q: Speaking of collaborations to produce films, what is your view on that?

A: Yes, a number of countries have come forward for collaboration projects. Iran, France, Germany, USA, etc. came forward to do collaboration on Afghan stories, either within Afghanistan or outside. But we have found some problems arise in the nature of most of the collaborations that we have had so far. For instance, one problem is that the foreign people wanted to do only a certain project; and once that was over, their job was done and they left. There was no continuity. That becomes a problem for us; because if someone is saying initially that they are coming to help build the local film industry and then they are not really helping to do it, then it does not really help our purpose. If you are saying you are coming to help the industry here, then do so with some continuity and not as a one-project shop. The second problem is that if a film is being made on Afghanistan, then it should use some local talent, both in crew and cast. It should also use the views of local Afghans to depict the scenes more realistically. But not many do that. Like in the movie Kite Runner, I did not believe some of the scenes shown because the scene looked like it were made on an outsider’s view, not on a local’s view.

UntitledAt Ghan Film Festival, Australia

Q: What about collaborations with India? What should be done to boost collaborations with India?

A: Frankly, even Indian-Afghan collaborations have been negligible, and that is disappointing. We expected more from India, given the relations between the two countries. But Indian interest in the field of arts in Afghanistan has been less than what we would have hoped for. A few Indian films (like Kabul Express, etc.) have been made on Afghan stories, but most of them used Indians or foreigners, not Afghans. We would have expected more support from India to help grow Afghan film and the arts, especially because India does hundreds of productions each year and so there were many chances. I think one way to boost this is to tell the Indian film makers that – listen, you can keep the profits, just give a helping hand to the Afghan film makers, cast and crew by using their talent. Then it will not just be a business deal, but a relationship driven more from the heart to help the local industry grow. Even if shooting of the project cannot be done in Afghanistan, I am sure the location can be made up in Indian studios as they have a lot of creativity in set-designing. Relations between the two countries have been great, so they should extend it to the arts as well. After all, if there can be collaboration of artistes between Pakistan and India, why not between Afghanistan and India where we’ve not had a single conflict in recent years.

UntitledAt the set

Q: Any collaboration with Pakistan, or even Bangladesh?

A: There is nothing visible even on Pakistan-Afghanistan collaboration. Indian TV-dramas, apart from Turkish dramas, are shown more in Afghanistan television, not Pakistani dramas. We do not expect much from Pakistan, but we did expect more from India. On Bangladesh, we do not have much collaboration either. But it is a country close to my heart. One of the two people who encouraged me to enter acting happens to be a Bangladeshi. Their TV-drama industry has picked up. It is definitely a country we look forward to for collaborations. At the end, I think art should be beyond borders and language. That’s the way I see it! For instance, I have seen some Bengali and South Indian films without the sub-titles and yet understood it, because the content and direction was good. So really, art should be beyond border and language!

UntitledAt AIFF Awards, Stockholm, Sweden

Q: How can the global market for Afghan TV or film content expand? Or at least expanded to India? An Indian channel Zee TV Zindagi showed Pakistani drama for some time. What is holding back Afghan content from being aired elsewhere?

A: Let’s talk about TV drama series here, because it has become a big business now for global broadcasters. It would be great if an Afghan TV series can be shown in India, Pakistan or even Tajikistan. But the issue is that there is no regular long-running production of an Afghan TV series. Most of the series are short, up to 12 episodes or so. That is very short for another country to buy the content and air it. For instance, Shereen was a TV-series produced locally by the TV network’s own money. Even though its subject matter of a strong female personality was considered taboo by many in the society, it grabbed the attention of many in Afghanistan and abroad and won critical acclaim. But then, the series was short – only 12 episodes. What we need is a long-running TV series of one year or so, and with good content which the other society can relate to. That would take the attention of that country to buy it and air it. On Shereen itself, a lot of people still ask me when the next season will start. But for that, the network has to wait for funding. Funding itself creates another challenge in the objective of creating a TV series that we would like to make. When an foreign agency does give funding to a local film maker, they do not really give the fund for his idea. Rather they give the fund for their own idea, which they want to show. It is their ideas, topic, their way of direction, etc. They will say what will happen. It is their choice, what we call farmaishi in our language. So it is not really taking into account what the film maker wanted to show. But the local networks and film makers will take up the project because at least the funds are coming. But that may not always be the sort of content another third country might want to buy.

UntitledAt the set of the film based on the Farkhunda mob lynching incident

Q: Let us come back to your experience in Afghan cinema? What has been the reaction of people been? Do you face security trouble from the ultra-conservatives who do not like to see females essaying strong roles?

A: Yes, there has been an experience of both. Just like I have received a lot of praise and acclaim for my roles, I have also faced a lot of problems, be it hate messages or violent threats, mostly because I portray those issues through my roles which a lot of people do not want to raise openly. Earlier when I used to receive hate messages, I used to feel very bad. It would hurt me, and I would delete that message. But then I realized if someone is using that message as a way to pour out the hatred and anger in their heart, let them. Let them use me as a punching bag, if it makes them feel better after that. If they feel relieved after venting that hatred from within themselves, then that is okay! Now I do not delete such messages any more but keep those posts. Yes, we have also faced security threats at the shooting location. Once a bomb exploded close to where we were shooting. Another time while shooting the film Qamar about 2 hours outside Kabul, we were told on the third and last day of the shoot that a person had come on the set and was threatening to kill us; so we would have to pack up and leave. This film was about a mother who stands up against a patriarchal society to prevent the forced child marriage of her daughter, and it seemed the man did not like this theme to be shown openly. We were in a dilemma, as we would not get such a location to shoot in Kabul and our two days’ work would go to waste. At the same time, we could not put the lives of our 18 cast and crew members in danger. As an emergency, we had to call a high-up official and explain to him the situation, telling him if we continued shooting, then he would have to come and collect 18 dead bodies. He understood the gravity of the situation and called up the officials in the area we were in, and then we were given the security to complete it. Sometimes in my shoots, my own crew members walk on both sides of me as security as we do not always have the budget to hire extras. And even if you do hire private security, you cannot be always sure what is playing in their minds. Government guards are okay, but one cannot always rely on private security guards. In any case, I hate being surrounded by guns. I am anti-gun, and do not feel comfortable surrounded even by private guards holding guards. Yes, the fear is there; but if we stop because they are threatening us, that would mean a victory for them. I think our country has a rich cultural heritage, and we should keep it alive through what we do.

UntitledWith cast and crew on set

Q: Given that so many trained Afghan artistes, crew and film makers have left the country due to war, do you think there is a case to build an Afghan film industry outside of Afghanistan than inside?

A: No, not really. Most of those who went abroad have gone as refugees, and it then becomes hard to continue with their prior professions. The new countries might not need that talent, because they already have their own people well trained in that profession. So the opportunity for making Afghan films is definitely more within Afghanistan, not outside. If the two main challenges of security and funding can be resolved, the industry can receive a great boost. What we also need is the marketing and publicity to get the word going. Training facilities would also be a help, but we can still manage without that. There are many stories and topics on which films can be made here, the list is just endless!

UntitledAt a public protest after the Farkhunda mob lynching incident

Q: Lastly, let us come to the work you have done on the social activism side, to improve the state of Afghan women. What is the situation there now, especially compared to what it was during the Taliban regime?

A: Yes, women faced a lot more issues under the Taliban. But they still continue to face a lot of social problems even now. Many of those problems are common to what women in India or Pakistan also face – like the lack of formal education, women’s rights, economic empowerment, etc. or even child marriage. I do not think always what the foreign media portrays about Afghan women is entirely right. Sometimes they show a few women in the big cities who are going to universities or occupying high positions in offices and government or not wearing the all-covering burqa as a barometer of how the condition of Afghan women has improved and that they have become liberated. Yes, we do have all that. But that is an incomplete view! You really have to go to the villages and inside the households to see how many women are still living their daily lives. You need to go deeper in their lives. Just showing the few women in Kabul is not a complete representation of the state of Afghan women. It is what we call numaishi in our language. They are just fooling their viewers. Even in the capital Kabul despite its numerous check-points, embassies, government offices and international agency offices, the city has had cases like the mob lynching of an innocent Farkhunda Malikzada in broad daylight. I essayed a role on that incident. So while we have made a lot of improvements in the condition of our women, a lot still needs to be done. I think it is important for our society and global media to accept that. That is why our social work on women is so critical, and we will continue to work for all Afghan women!

UntitledAt the New Hope Award ceremony

Q&A Interview of Ms. Leena Alam with Sourajit Aiyer

Image Courtesy: All Images by Ms. Leena Alam 

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