Reel Afghanistan - Afghan film festival

Think piece

Critic and festival programmer Tony McKibbin celebrates the arrival of the first UK Afghan film festival

'Culture and lifestyle are the diplomacy of the 21st century,’ claims Simon Jenkins in a recent article in The Guardian, suggesting that where in the past cultural exchange relied on diplomats - on men in suits - today it comes in myriad forms: travel, music, films, literature. This is less about diplomatic compromise than cultural relish, as people want to experience something new. But what happens if a country doesn’t quite become involved in this free-flow of cultural possibilities and gets trapped with a specific type of image? Was Afghanistan one of those countries, as it became a byword for war-ravaged misery?

In his book, Psychoanalysis and Cinema, Christian Metz differentiates between the metonym (a specific thing that stands for the whole) and the toponym (the geographical place itself) and how the latter can get superimposed upon by the former. Bordeaux may be a place but do many people not think of it first and foremost as a wine, and what about Roquefort, where, as Metz notes, it is 'of course possible for some French speakers to know the cheese whilst remaining ignorant of the very existence of the place?' Often a town, a country, a part of the world can lose its geographical specificity, and its consequent cultural richness, to a ready symbolism that simplifies. Sarajevo, Beirut, Baghdad, Kabul are just a number of cities that over the past 25 years have been reduced not just to rubble geographically, but to ready metonymy as well. Beirut was famous for being the Paris of the Middle East before becoming shorthand for chaos and destruction.

One of the many reasons for putting on the first ever Scottish Afghan film festival was to try to show that there is far more to Afghanistan than bloodshed and misery. It is an attempt to return it to its ‘toponymic’ status, to its broader geographical significance as a place of mystery and excitement, as one of the way stations on the silk road, and as a country that played albeit reluctant host to Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.

Yet obviously the war and the Taliban rule can’t be ignored, and many of the films unavoidably touch upon them. Even here, however, this isn’t an outside perspective looking on, but where possible an insider’s view trying to give aesthetic texture to stories usually given over to journalistic immediacy. In This World the British director Michael Winterbottom found local youths to play the lead roles and spent months filming with a minimal crew to give a sense of place to a film about two boys travelling from the Pakistani border and trying to make their way to the UK.

Marzieh Meshkini, director of Stray Dogs, was one of four members of the Makhmalbaf family to make a film in Afghanistan. Focusing on the outskirts of Kabul, she manages to offer a visual richness to a film that never quite goes into the minds of the two young kids it focuses upon, but works subliminally between a brother and sister’s difficult real life as orphans scavenging around the city, and moments of serene imagery that seems to counter the general mood: moments like the man living in the car or the visit to the mosque.

Meshkini’s husband is the great Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Kandahar shares with Meshkini’s film the need to make the image surprising, to take war-ravaged imagery and turn it into an aesthetic composition. We might think of the burka-clad women near the end of the film, or the war wounded chasing after prosthetic limbs that are being dropped by plane.

Some of the filmmakers have offered a fresh perspective rather than fresh imagery, and Liz Merrin's The Beauty Academy of Kabul is a case in point. Here she films a few beauty therapists in Kabul training up the locals so they can open their own beauty academy in the city. If Stray Dogs and Kandahar undermine metonymic cliché through startling images, Mermin does so through humour, through showing the culture clashes between sometimes bolshy western assuredness and burgeoning confidence on the part of the Afghan women.

The mere presence of Osama when it came out in 2003 felt like a breakthrough. Here was an Afghan film directed by a Siddiq Barmak that said it wasn’t outsiders alone who could make films about Afghanistan, there were homegrown directors too. Barmak may have been educated in film at Moscow University, and his early short work shows that influence, but Osama feels like a picture conjured up out of the specifics of Afghanistan no matter if its despairing story of an orphan who tries to pass herself off as boy to find work resembles a Dickensian tale.

Perhaps the discovery of the festival will be Atiq Rahimi, the director of both Earth and Ashes and (A)fghanistan: an Impossible State, two very different takes on contemporary Afghan history. The first is a near wordless account of a young boy and his grandfather going to tell the latter’s son their village has been bombed and the other members of the family killed. Here the context is kept to a minimum and the visuals do much of the work for us, as Rahimi explores figures in a landscape simultaneously dealing with personal tragedy, and soon to report that tragedy to someone else.

(A)fghanistan: An Impossible State is decidedly the opposite: a voice over-driven account of recent Afghan history so contextually rich that even the narrator admits at a certain point that he’s getting a bit lost. All the pernicious influences on Afghanistan in the last 35 years make a telling of Afghan history not only immensely difficult, but inevitably demands saying something about Pakistan, Russian the US and Iran at the same time.

There is an impressive range of films here, and this isn’t only important for the people on the outside looking in (namely the very viewer who will come along for this festival), but also Afghans themselves. As Mohsen Makhmalbaf once proposed: 'Cinema acts like a mirror for society to look at its spirit and correct its faults, and Afghanistan has lived so much without the mirror of cinema we can almost say this nation does not recognise its own image.' Is that beginning to change?

Reel Afghanistan, Filmhouse & Cameo, Edinburgh from Thu 21 Feb. Visit for details.


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