Fragmented Memory: Unearthing Film History in Kabul, Afghanistan

Projectionist at work in Kabul's Park Cinema, 2018.
Filmmaker Ariel Nasr explains the premises and production history of The Forbidden Reel, a documentary about the Afghan film archive reflecting the social-political structures of Afghanistan and its capital Kabul.
[Ed. note: The documentary The Forbidden Reel, by Ariel Nasr, tells the incredible story of the Afghan Film Archive and through it the film history of Afghanistan, providing a new take on the country’s history. In doing so, this frame narration shows how film archiving is embedded in the social-political structures of the country and its capital, Kabul. In this installment of ‘From the Archive,’ Nasr adds another layer to the narrative, recounting the production history of his documentary and his personal story along with it.]

Kabul is a city of a million parts and a million colors. But the color that predominates is the warm brown mist of sand, earth and dust that lasts from early summer until the end of fall. It is the detritus of six million lives suspended in air and suffused with light. I know that glow as well as I know anything. I have filmed and produced many projects in its light. Once, I documented the work of a brilliant Kabul-based painter named Mohammad Akram who used only mud to create his pictures. He told me that, while painting, he always thought of his father, who had disappeared in the war. “Who knows,” he said, “I might be painting with parts of his body.”

My father came to Canada from Afghanistan in 1973, fleeing a coup that preceded the communist revolution of 1978. He filled my head with stories of this place when I was a child. I listened with fascination as he described the rich tapestry of his experience and culture. His stories painted a picture very different from the one available on our eighties TV screen, where bearded commandos launched stinger missiles at Soviet choppers and the words “freedom fighter” were repeated until we couldn’t see them as anything else. That period ended when the Soviets withdrew, claiming victory in 1989, as they pulled the last forces out across the bridge to Uzbekistan, leaving behind utter destruction and just enough aid money to fortify Najibullah’s communist government in Kabul. The Berlin wall fell the same year, but the rings of security encircling the Afghan capital lasted longer, outlasting the Soviet Union itself to crumble, finally, in 1992 under the onslaught of Mujahideen forces.

The Afghan-Soviet war killed as many as two million Afghans, produced more than six-million refugees, and created a decade’s worth of TV news for the West. That was how most people learned about Afghanistan—hippy trail notwithstanding. But inside communist Kabul—and in the camps of Mujahideen fighters—Afghan filmmakers were rolling their own movie cameras, capturing their own perspectives and telling their own stories about the conflict. Afghan cameramen would continue to roll cameras through the civil war that followed, but after the Soviets left, the West lost interest. It was only the commitment of a few archivists that kept Afghanistan’s visual history from destruction in the following years of largely untelevised warfare and the coming of the Taliban regime.

Mahmoud, Afghan Film’s Gardener, rides his bicycle to work in Kabul, 2018.

Filmmaking in Kabul

After the US and Canada began moving their armies into this remote corner of the world in the early 2000s, I couldn’t stay away. I had never stopped talking, reading and dreaming about Afghanistan. I needed to understand how my father’s culture had survived so many years of war, and how it would survive yet another. The year I finished college, I flew to Afghanistan for the first time. It was 2005, and Kabul was still in ruins. The airport, decorated with the carcasses of bombed-out planes, was only semi-functional.  As I hauled my bag across the tarmac with a thin line of passengers, a 737 turned its rear jets on us, knocking us all flat. Lying there, cheek to pavement, I wondered if I would find what I was looking for, before Kabul reduced me to ruins too.

In 2008, I moved to Kabul to work as a filmmaker and producer. I stayed until 2012. There were many filmmakers there, and many became friends. But I quickly realized that the way I approached my projects was a little different. As an Afghan citizen, I was deeply aware of a sense of responsibility toward my family and the people who appeared in my films. This awareness compelled me to respect the same laws and institutions to which local Afghans were subject. This meant going through formal channels even when I might easily have avoided doing so.

Those were the Karzai years. Kabul was awash in foreign money and growing like a broiler chicken on steroids. The freedom fighters were back in power and their martyrs towered above busy traffic circles, while half a million salvaged cars belched petrol fumes into the dusty air. Wealth brought mobility of other kinds too. Where there had been mud homes or open fields, palaces of marble, steel and glass rose into the smog.

For the first time in my life, I found myself among people like me: Afghan expatriates from the West. For us, Kabul was both old and new. We had seen it through our parents’ eyes, but everything  had changed since their time and now we had to negotiate our own terms with it. A term was coined to describe our experience: we were “Halfghans”—neither Western nor Eastern, but both at once.

Director Ariel Nasr and crew.

Afghan Film

It was not until I had lived in Kabul for nearly a year that I discovered there was a governmental department that had the remit to authorize all film production activity in the country. Because they were a neglected, underfunded organization that struggled just to keep the lights on, they were rarely consulted and still relatively unknown among internationals.

When I walked into the run-down, bullet-scarred Afghan Film offices for the first time, I was apprehensive. I had been warned I would have to deal with the notoriously difficult president, Engineer Latif, a bête-noire, better known in those days for shutting film productions down than for lending a helping hand. I was even told I would have to pay a large bribe. On the wall above Latif’s desk was a scale 3D model of a truly ambitious film complex. It was a filmmaker’s dream in balsa wood and paint. The interlinked plazas surrounded by large buildings and cut by tree-lined avenues would have rivaled any public film producer in the world. It was the unrealized dream of the communist era in Afghanistan. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Though he never asked for a bribe, Latif was a tough nut to crack. Despite his perfect manners, he was challenging to deal with, insisting on detailed paperwork, then finding ways to delay the process by requiring one more signature, one more document, or suddenly becoming impossible to reach. I took the time to jump through his hoops. I did everything he asked. Finally, he told me I would need a signed letter from the Ministry of Information and Culture in order to complete the process. Another lengthy process began. This time, however, I was lucky. The deputy minister of culture was Omar Sultan, a progressive who understood why I was there. With his help, I was finally able to obtain the permissions I needed in order to proceed with the full support of the government and of Afghan Film. Maybe because he saw I was not going away, Engineer Latif began to work with me.

I kept shooting projects in Afghanistan. I produced advertisements and directed videos for big development organizations. I rented Afghan Film grip equipment (manual cranes and dollies, carefully maintained in pristine condition), hired Afghan Film crews, and listened to Latif’s advice. Slowly I gained his respect. When I shot an ambitious short project in Kabul, Buzkashi Boys, he came to the wrap party. A week later, he brought a tiny puppy to the home of my associate producer. Something in our relationship had changed.

Not long after, Latif asked me to produce his next film. I took it as a compliment. I didn’t yet know how big a compliment it was. To demonstrate his past work, he showed me one of his films. Made in 1981, Akhtar the Joker is a biting satire about class relations. It is an extraordinary piece of work that shows a completely different Afghanistan. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. The cold-war narrative of evil-empire versus noble freedom fighter was completely absent. And where were the conservative mores, the hijab, the prayers? I had seen the much-touted historical photos of the royal family and other members of Kabul’s upper class wearing short skirts. But watching these films—and the newsreels that accompanied them—was like entering into that world completely. Above all, I had somehow never imagined such unique and powerful filmmaking emerging from Afghanistan. For the first time, I realized that Latif—this old man who seemed made of the same stuff as the walls of the office he occupied—was an extraordinary filmmaker in his own right.

Young women in Kabul celebrate the communist revolution, 1978.

The Afghan Film Archive

I ramped up my exploration of the film scene in Kabul, buying films in the market or borrowing them from friends. I found films that were strictly for entertainment, films that were clearly propaganda, and true auteur films that spoke to something deeper. Although new Afghan filmmakers were beginning to emerge, I was fascinated by the work of the old guard: filmmakers who had trained at Afghan Film, or their protégés. Gradually, I became aware of the breadth and uniqueness of the film heritage housed in the Afghan Film Archive. Most of these titles could only be viewed one at a time, in their original film format, in the Afghan Film offices.

One day, by sheer coincidence, my uncle was hired by Mariam Ghani. Mariam was an Afghan American artist from a political family, whose father has since risen to become president. In those days, she had initiated a project to help catalogue and digitize some of the films in the Afghan Film Archive, to make them available to the public. With my uncle’s help I became aware of more films. I was blown away. It wasn’t just the quality of the films that surprised me, but the pictures (I use the plural, for there were many) that they painted of the fabric of Afghan society. I began to see a different side of history that flowed together from the films of the archive and the story they told. It was, above all, the story of being an artist in Afghanistan: the history of the country through the eyes of the cinema makers.

It wasn’t just the story of those making feature films that was extraordinary. The newsreel crews were amazing in their own right. These skillful camera operators were a different breed: so obsessed with documenting their country’s history that they continued to risk their life to shoot the unfolding chaos, long after they no longer had an official remit to do so. They shot without a pay cheque, they shot when it was no longer their job. The government itself fell, and yet they stayed and continued shooting. And then they stayed on and guarded the film reels with their lives.

Their sheer commitment to the task of creation, and of documenting history with film, spoke to me so deeply that I felt called to make a film that would extend their project, carrying the legacy of these committed documentary filmmakers (for that is how I came to think of them) out to the world at large: not just to honor their tenacity, but to disrupt the growing picture of Afghanistan as a lost cause with tangible evidence of its resilience, creativity and culture. It took me years to find the right producer, and the financial support.

Poster of The Forbidden Reel by Ariel Nasr.

The Forbidden Reel

In 2015, I began work on The Forbidden Reel. Research was the first big challenge. I took entire trips to Afghanistan just to explore the archive. Since the Taliban had threatened the films in the nineties, cannisters had been rearranged and films intentionally mislabeled. The archive had no working catalog, so instead I engaged in long conversations with the archivists. They shared their encyclopedic knowledge with me, then hauled film cannisters up a flight of stairs and spooled them onto a rickety Soviet-made projector. When the light hit the screen, a new window into the past would open and I would be spellbound again.

Back in Montreal, producer Sergeo Kirby and I formed a partnership with the National Film Board, Canada’s national film producer. The NFB has much in common with Afghan Film. Its creative leadership and technical staff saw an opportunity to aid a sister organization through their world-class expertise in digitization and preservation. Together, we invited Ibrahim Arify, then president of Afghan Film, to bring a selection of classic Afghan films to Montreal for digitization at the NFB’s state-of-the-art facility. This would be invaluable both to our documentary, and to Afghan Film itself.

Viewing these films at their full quality in the edit suite, it was clear to me that they could change minds. Not on their own—for they required the stories of their creators to be complete—but as part of a feature documentary that dives deeply into their creation and meaning. The project began to take shape. Our film would become a kind of alternative history, told through moving pictures and interviews, from the perspective of those who lived through and documented decades of unprecedented conflict and change. It was a chance to look at things that had been ignored by the mainstream media.

Kabul is a city of a million images. And each of those images has its place in the history of this city. Afghanistan’s capital has been called a backwater, the Paris of Central Asia, a fortress-city, and one of the world’s fastest growing metropolises. It sits atop a dwindling supply of groundwater, beneath a blanket of smog, at the heart of an ongoing conflict, cradling the seat of a contested government. It is also a city with a vibrant history of resisting tyranny through art.

Still from recreation, The Forbidden Reel.

One of the most important documentaries that we digitized in Montreal was House of History, a heartfelt piece of auteur cinema that witnesses the destruction of Kabul by rival Mujahideen factions, during the Afghan Civil War of 1992-1996. It was shot and directed by Qader Tahiri, an Afghan director and cameraman whom I struggled to locate. I knew only that he had left Afghanistan many years before. Half of Tahiri’s documentary is an unflinching look at the human cost of war, while the other half explores the destruction of the Kabul’s National Museum—the titular House of History. Tahiri manages to create a compelling metaphor from the defaced and looted Kabul museum. Affirming the power of history and art, the filmmaker implies that only those who witnessed and were touched by the conflict can lead the way to a better future. “The world, silent as a swamp, turns its face away”, says the narrator. “But be aware, the dawn will not come until we light the way with torches fueled by our scars.” I began to see this film as a model and inspiration for my own. But it was only toward the end of production that I was finally able to track down the director. He lived a half-hour drive from me in Montreal, and he had been here since the late nineties. In twenty years he had not made another film. Nor had he learned to speak French or English or started a new career. The trauma of what he had witnessed had gone deep and had never left him.

Director Ariel Nasr with crew on set of The Forbidden Reel, 2018.

The Forbidden Reel premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November, 2019. In January 2020, with a group of graduate students from Concordia University, I helped to bring House of History to the screen in Montreal. Banned by the Mujahideen government of the nineties, this was the first time the film had ever been screened. Watching Qader Tahiri speak to a packed Montreal audience about his film, I felt a sense of completion. More than anything, this is what I had hoped would happen: that the films in my documentary would find a life of their own out there, in the world.

This project has grown organically out of my last decade working as a documentary filmmaker in Afghanistan and it feels like natural progression to me. As an Afghan diasporic filmmaker, whose work has focused on documenting contemporary Afghan culture, I feel as though I have discovered my true, and in some ways, my spiritual, heritage in the Afghan filmmakers, who began documenting the country’s history long before I was born. It is my job to help bring their legacy to the world. Perhaps if I can do so, their work will gain in meaning through those who view it and finally receive the recognition it deserves.

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