Editors Note: Over the horrendous last couple of weeks as America began its final withdrawal from Afghanistan and Taliban zealots took control again after two decades, veteran foreign affairs correspondent and Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield author Hollie McKay has been back in the South Asian nation to see history sadly repeat itself.
In another special report for Deadline, coming after the fatal terror attack of Thursday, McKay focuses on the burgeoning film industry that emerged since the Taliban was tossed out by American forces in 2001, and the dark days ahead for Afghani cinema and filmmakers.
An Afghan man – his face of map of exaggerated agony – runs from his Kabul home, picking up the blood-drenched body of the woman he loves most in this world.
“My wife,” preeminent actor Salim Shaheen wails in Dari, the native Afghan dialect of Farsi. “Who did this to you?”
His female co-star, pale-faced and mouth agape in his arms, pauses dramatically – then bursts with a kind of uncontrollable laughter.
“You ruined my scene,” Shaheen laments, firing off a few expletives. “And now my hands are dirty with this stage blood!”
But the moment, a behind-the-scenes snapshot of a 2012 television series Kabul At Work, is more than just a blooper. It was a moment of brevity and a symbol of just how far Afghanistan’s film industry had come amid the U.S.-led occupation of the country following the 2001 invasion and ousting of the Taliban regime from power.
However, as soon as the insurgency took control of Kabul’s Presidential Palace and declared themselves the rightful leaders last weekend – those hard-earned gains were shattered in an instant. The steadily evolving and critically acclaimed Afghan film and television industry now belongs to the graveyard of memories.
“Great terror has been spread in the streets and back alleys of our country. The Taliban are hostile to educated people – including journalists, arts, filmmakers and poets,” a leading Afghan moviemaker who asked only to be identified as Sharafat as he attempts to leave the country with his family, told me Wednesday.
“Our language is closed. Music is not allowed, let alone filmmakers in Afghanistan.”
The offices of the once passionate and budding film and television production companies – cloistered in tiny office spaces in the once-bustling nucleus of Kabul – are shuttered and abandoned.
The artists and occupants have deleted their social media accounts and gone underground. Some have gone into anguished hiding; others have fled far and wide – leaving behind their life’s work and the country they helped compel from the dark ages over the past 20 years.
Of all the content creatives I have spoken with over the past week, there is no point for them in trying to stay to document this blood-spattered moment in the history books. The stakes are to stay and die or survive and run.
Many in the film industry are old enough to remember that under the Taliban – who ruled from 1996 and 2001 – such mediums of entertainment are strictly forbidden. Cinemas were bombed and burned, television sets battered and broken by insurgents. Moreover, those caught secretly watching the banned content faced severe punishment such as flogging.
On the flip side, many are young enough not to know anything different than a country brimming with art and culture, finding its feet through freedom of expression.
“Cinemas are closed, and filmmakers are frightened and hiding in their homes, and at least half have already fled,” Sharafat continues. “We cannot live under the Taliban.”
Despite the grim five-year Taliban rule of the past, Afghans have long had a zestful history with the small screen, dating back to the 1920s when the government funded an array of different feature film projects through to the 1970s.
The state-funded Afghan Film was founded in the late 1960s to support emerging content creators. After invading Afghanistan in 1979, the Soviets offered cultural training initiatives to students, setting off a string of new creatives. Color films and television seeped through into the Afghanistan mainstream in the 1980s, despite the civil war that crushed vast swaths of the country. Yet, many emerging faces in filmmaking were then forced to flee to neighboring Iran and Pakistan so that they could actually continue to work as the conflict escalated.
Then in the early days of the Taliban’s first sweep to power, dedicated Afghans took it upon themselves – with great risk – to smuggle and cleverly hide the most significant remnants of the films and entertainment arena they treasured so much. Some reels were buried deep into the earth, others into walls and camouflaged into floorboards.
But the arrival of U.S. forces almost 20 years ago brought the industry back from the dead.
In addition to an array of initiatives and programs to foster the next generation of storytelling, it also saw the somewhat dissemination of pirated movies into the wide-reaching rural provinces with exceedingly high illiteracy rates. Nonetheless, poorly dubbed bootlegs of the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster Titanic became a household staple in the early-2000s in Kabul and the more isolated areas, exposing scores to the notion of western moviemaking for the very first time and was affectionately referred to as “Titanic fever.”
The stage was set and Afghans could not get enough.
“There was this huge rush in seeking entertainment. We even saw reality television. Afghans were successfully making their own films and shows and were just so proud of what they were able to put out. Filmmakers – including women – were so proud that they no longer had to dub foreign films, they could actually make their own,” notes Jake Simkin, who ran the Development Pictures film company in Kabul between 2010-2015.
Thus up until the government collapse last Sunday, the day that marked the beginning of the end of Afghan artists, prominent film director Sahara Karimi presided over the Afghan Film board and its intricate archiving process.
For the archivists, who had managed to digitally savior upwards of 15,000 movies from both 16mm and 35mm reels, it was a long labor of love that began years ago but has stammered and re-started amid funding cuts. But with the Taliban power-grab this time, there was no time to step in and save and smuggle anything that was left given how sudden and unexpected the nation’s fall proved to be.
So what is left of that endeavor is unknown.
The almost two-dozen movies in production have gone dark.
“Now, it’s safe to say the industry is pretty much over,” Simkin says somberly.
The videographer/producer predicts that there may be some form of Taliban-controlled entertainment going forward, which will be religious-based content and with the use of vocals and no instruments.
“The days of drama and soap operas and programming of adventure sports are no more,” he reflects.
In my own experience of being stranded in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif – which was taken over by the Taliban the night before the outfit assailed through the gates of Kabul – movies, music and entertainment were the first commodities to instantly vanish under the new governance.
What had previously endeared me most about the ancient city, nestled inside the vast and fertile plains of Balkh province, was the way everyone from shopkeepers and students to street vendors and professionals, spent hours on the sidewalks sipping tea and watching films from old laptops, square-box television sets and dated model smartphones. Music constantly blared from the ocean of yellow cabs clogged on the narrow roads and even from the small donkey carts with bells that jingled as they bumped along.
Yet on the day after the dramatic fall, soundlessness was the first thing that I observed. The soundtrack of vitality was gone, replaced by only a few melancholic male faces sitting on the sidewalk saying nothing and fearful to even pull an electronic or a basic flip phone from their pocket.
As the days stretched on, a few more locals eventually stepped out into the sunshine. Still, there was no more entertainment, and I realized that the country I had come to know and love had catapulted back to a place from which it may never return.
There is only so much peril creatives can face – and the elastic band of risk versus reward has now effectively snapped.
Despite the broad acceptance and desire among the Afghan population for all stripes of film and television, filmmakers, writers and creatives still undertook their work at great peril to their personal safety inside the volatile country in recent years. The handful of Afghanistan movie theaters were often subject to bomb blasts and threats by Taliban sympathizers and hardline Islamist extremists; famed faces were put on hit lists and in some cases tortured, executed, maimed and mutilated.
And in now what seems like a dreaded prophecy, Karimi herself cautioned in an open letter just days before the Taliban takedown what would happen if they took the helm.
“I and other filmmakers could be next on their hit list,” she wrote, begging the world not to turn its back. “We need your support and your voice on behalf of Afghan women, children, artists, and filmmakers…. Please help us before Kabul Taliban comes to power. We only have a few days.”
Time has run out. And Karimi – like almost all those leading the creative charge – have absconded to countries far away.
“This new rule is not just the end for filmmakers; we are now back to two decades ago,” Sharafat added with a whisper, as if afraid the enemy could hear. “We have lost our achievements. We have lost everything. We are just so very sad.”