Hardly any Canadians know that Afghanistan had a growing and creative film industry that drove progressive social change for decades.
So Halifax-born filmmaker Ariel Nasr, the son of an immigrant from Kabul, decided to do something about it.
His 2019 National Film Board documentary, The Forbidden Reel, is an ambitious, compelling, and emotionally rich exploration of Afghanistan’s recent history as seen through the prism of its film industry.
And it tells how employees at Afghan Film—that country’s equivalent of the National Film Board—took tremendous risks to save that archive of movies created from the 1960s to the early 1990s, even as Taliban officials wanted them destroyed.
“There’s this fervent love for cinema—this determination or refusal to quit,” Nasr tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “And so a lot of this sort of turned inward to the preservation of the older films because there were no funds to make anything new.”
At times, the film conveys the joyful and peaceful life that existed in Afghanistan before the country descended into violence in the early 1980s.
Nasr features some of the most influential members of Afghanistan’s film industry from that bygone era, including director Engineer Latif. He’s really the father of cinema in that country, with memorable films highlighting class differences and showing modern women in leadership roles.
Others who appear at length on-screen include directors Siddiq Barmal and Yussef Jannesar, as well as actor Yasmin Yarmal.
They took pride in creating cinema that was uniquely Afghan—and most definitely not merely mirroring what was being produced in Hollywood, Bollywood, neighbouring Iran, or Europe.
According to Nasr, Afghan filmmakers were driven by a social purpose to help build a better country, including for women.
”There’s a lot of diversity in terms of the style, but there are certain things you can point to,” Nasr says of Afghan films. “And one of them is this…tendency to use real locations filled with real people as a backdrop for fictional stories.”
This is apparent in The Forbidden Reel’s clips of Akhtar-e Maskara (Akhtar, the Joker), one of Latif’s most memorable movies.
Made in 1981 during Afghan’s Communist era, it’s a tragic tale of a working-class character adopted as a mascot by an upper-class family.
“Where we show him walking around in the street is more or less an open natural location,” Nasr says. “It hasn’t been locked down. It’s not filled with extras. In a certain way, it has that in common with Italian neorealism where…they were shooting on the backdrop of war-ravaged cities.”
The Forbidden Reel marks Nasr’s fourth film on Afghanistan that he has either written, directed, or produced.
Among them is the fictional short, Buzkashi Boys, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2013 for best live-action short film. He also directed the National Film Board's The Boxing Girls of Kabul and Good Morning Kandahar.
“As time went by and I both saw history unfolding in Afghanistan and also the media that was coming out of Afghanistan, I began to feel more and more in my work that I wanted to put Afghan voices in the forefront,” Nasr says. “I wanted to use my work to frame other Afghan storytellers in a certain way.”
One of those Afghan storytellers in his film is Brooklyn-based artist, writer, filmmaker, and teacher Mariam Ghani. She also happens to be the daughter of the president of Afghanistan, though that was glossed over in Nasr’s film.
Ghani spent a great deal of time in the archives of Afghan Film and she helps contextualize their importance in The Forbidden Reel.
For example, she says that pieces of Afghanistan’s history are starting to resurface as a result of the old movies being accessible again. And these images have made it possible for Afghans to discuss the Communist period from 1978 to 1992 with “some kind of honesty and completeness that was not possible five years ago”.
However, she quickly adds that it’s still not possible to do that about the Mujahadeen period that began in 1992 or the Taliban years that began in the mid 1990s.
Nasr appreciates the perspective Ghani brought to his project, which won the Rogers Audience Award at Hot Docs 2020.
But the most memorable moments concern the filmmakers and Yarmal, who had to make life-or-death decisions about how to survive in the midst of civil war.
Latif, for instance, fled to Tajikistan in 1992 on the advice of Mujahadeen rebel leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Latif thought he would be gone for just six months, but he ended up in exile in Moscow for many years after the Taliban seized control.
The actor Yarmal went back to her hometown of Mazar-i-Sharif where she lived under a false name during the Taliban era.
And Barmak, as the former head of Afghan Film, bought a generator to protect old films as rockets were raining down on Kabul. His mother fainted when the Taliban visited his home; later, he returned to the northeastern province of Panjshir, where he was born.
The archives themselves were also monumentally important for Nasr to be able to share the filmmakers’ personal stories.
“I wanted the archives to be used in a number of ways,” Nasr says. “Okay, here are the films. The second level is here is the history of Afghanistan through the films.
“The third level is here’s how we can talk about their lives metaphorically through their own work.”