Unearthing the treasures of Afghan cinema

Unearthing the treasures of Afghan cinema

The hidden history of Afghan cinema is revealed in Ariel Nasr’s extraordinary feature documentary The Forbidden Reel, which world-premiered in IDFA Frontlight.  


The film plays on several levels. It is satisfyingly academic with contributions from film historian/archivist Mariam Ghani. The current western view of Afghanistan is that of a “monolithic” culture, she argues, yet all the country’s political, aesthetic and cultural possibilities have always been reflected in the films from its past.


Moving insights are provided by filmmakers Engineer Latif Ahmadi and Siddiq Barmak. Latif explains how, when he fell three metres from a tank, the thing he felt compelled to protect most was his precious Arriflex 2 camera. Siddiq tells of his dilemma in wanting to study filmmaking in Russia, the country of Tarkovsky, Eisenstein et al, despite Afghanistan being under Soviet occupation.


The film even takes a whodunnit turn as Nasr seeks the identity of the high-ranking Taliban official who warned the Afghan film agency of the imminent plan to destroy the 2500 films within the national film archive. 


But it is the plethora of diverse and magnificent cinematic images culled from that archive, many never before seen even in Afghanistan, which astound, surprise and shock in equal measure. 


We see whirling dervishes, pretty girls frolicking in misty waters and army officers dancing in studiously languid style. In a film clip from the 1960s (which could have been lifted out of a movie made in Paris or Prague) a bearded and smoking intellectual attempts to woo a woman through his observation that “an artist without feelings cannot create valuable works.” 


And then there is the Civil War, presented through the footage of filmmakers commissioned by the Mujahideen to record both enemy movements as well the battles themselves, in order to determine the effectiveness of future offensives.


The eventual destruction of Kabul is seen in footage from the rarely seen The House of History by Qader Taheri, digitised by the filmmakers for this project.


“This is an incredibly Important film which was never before screened in Afghanistan,” says director Nasr. “It is the keystone, such a beautiful film, the only film that you can easily see [where] the filmmaker is shaking his fist at the regime in power… Half the film takes place in the city, and half takes place inside the national museum, showing the complete destruction of all the cultural artefacts and statuary… It is kind of haunting but it has poetic narration throughout. It is an essay, beautifully filmed, and the images of Kabul during the Civil War are second to none.”


Nasr first had the idea for The Forbidden Reel in 2012 but it was only when he met producer Sergeo Kirby of Loaded Pictures in 2015 when the project took off. The film is also made with the support of National Film Board of Canada who helped in the process of digitising the numerous films from the Afghani archive. (The originals were delivered by hand to Canada by the head of the archive’s head.)


What did Nasr find most striking as he unearthed and organised the forbidden footage? 


“The contrast between what was happening in Kabul and what was happening outside of Kabul was extraordinary, and we tried to emphasise that with some of the cutting,” he answers. “So you’ll go with a very dramatic cut between two scenes that are happening more or less chronologically, and it is the difference between a modern, cosmopolitan city, full of development and with women going to work, and then outside Kabul which is an absolute disaster where you see warfare, and where two million are killed eventually. That was a contrast that really hit home.”


Nasr also speaks of the decision of a top Taliban operative to tip off the staff at Afghan Film about the plan to destroy the archive (note: if you want to find out who this is, you will have to see the film).


“At any point in the history of any ideological regime or government there is always room for personal relationships, there is room for personal ideology, there is room for Afghan culture,” the director reflects. “The [fundamentalist] ideology is always kind of secondary in some sense to the relationships that exist, and that was powerful to discover.”


Before IDFA, Nasr went back to Kabul to show The Forbidden Reel to some of the film’s participants, their friends and colleagues. 


“It was incredible, just the appreciation, the enthusiasm and the love for the film. People were saying, ‘you have opened my eyes about some of my own cinema and political history. You have let me look at it in a different way’,” Nasr concludes.