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Exile cinema: An Afghan man’s discovery of a ‘forbidden art’

CultureExile cinema: An Afghan man’s discovery of a ‘forbidden art’

An inspiring tale of how the Bamyan Film Academy was successfully started.

Cinema is the transparent mirror and powerful voice of society and its cultures. So, if you want to remove a society, start from their throat and make them silent—this is exactly what the Taliban did with Afghan society. But, did the people accept this and stop raising their voices? Could the Taliban really stop the young Afghan filmmaker Rahman Alemi from following his dream and showing his country’s beautiful face to the world; and could the Taliban and their unwelcome heritage in Afghan society aim at the “art throat” of Rahman and other Afghan girls and boys?
Rahman Alemi is an Afghan immigrant boy in Iran; he was supposed to fulfill his father’s guidance and dream of becoming a religious and traditional cleric. But after immigrating to Britain, he became a filmmaker against the wishes of his family and the traditional Afghan community. He worked as an Uber driver in London while pursuing a Master’s degree in Digital Filmmaking at Southbank London. The comparative mind of Rahman was always comparing his new country and his mother land; the Big Ben (the Great Bell of the striking clock in London) and the Buddha (the statue of Buddha in Afghanistan) that in 2001, the Afghan Taliban during their previous ruling, blew that up because they thought that no one except Allah is worthy of worship, but the Taliban didn’t know that Buddha was the identity of Bamyan and a heritage of Bamyan’s glory, the same was as Big Ben is for London.
The Taliban succeeded in their plan of removing Afghan people’s identity by removing the Afghan Buddha. That is what made Rahman think about starting a revolution in Afghan cinema and show the people the way of expressing themselves, the way how to reconstruct their identity and show them to the world. Rahman Alemi returned to Afghanistan in 2017, and as part of a MA project, started teaching local students in the field of filmmaking. How can we tell a story with a camera? How to raise your voice and talk about your culture, society and feelings? He taught 40 students (selected from 300 people) from 2017 to 2019. The Bamyan Academy of Arts started to gain traction by producing more than 100 short documentaries and feature films and holding Film Festivals in Bamyan. The Bamyan Academy of Arts became the first film training center located in central Afghanistan, and in 2019, produced more than a third of Afghanistan’s total production. “I started the training very simply. Sharing a camera between 40 people, for the first time in Bamyan’s history, I taught visual arts at both pre-production and post-production stages. The training was very popular and the stories’ outcome was remarkable,” Rahman Alemi said. He pushed ahead despite the difficulties and barriers in pursuing art in a religious community with less awareness about cinema and art; he has deeply explored the situation of Afghan cinema and the necessity for new approaches to reinvigorate it. The Bamyan Film Project was a successful way of doing so; a way of reconciling both culture and religion with art.

Students of the Bamyan Film Academy during training.

Why did it start in Bamyan?
Bamyan is the heart of Afghanistan—a province with a unique geographical beauty and rich history. Before Islam, this province linked India, Iran, China and Central Asian countries. The Bamyan has historically been part of the Silk Road and the intersection of human civilizations of ancient cities, and boasted of the great statues of Buddha, where religious extremists first shaved the faces of Bamyan statues because of religious beliefs and then exploded them; more than half a million people live there in Bamyan. “We have chosen Bamyan as an origin for this project to have the beautiful nature and geography for our shots and the stories as resources for making films. Moreover, after the Taliban’s failure and starting a new government, the Buddha statues were placed among the cultural heritages and UNESCO started rebuilding those. But what about Bamyan’s people who will build their broken hearts and hear their stories? These were enough strong reasons for us to start this film project in Bamyan. Fortunately, we faced a very warm welcome by the people. And their indescribable interest in cinema and filmmaking made me more committed to my decision and we could successfully start the Bamyan Film Academy. Once the project matured, the objective turned to how education of filmmaking can preserve intangible cultural heritage in a historic location like Bamyan. Fortunately, more than 120 students from Bamyan benefitted to become YouTubers, TV presenters and even filmmakers.”
The short films and documentaries covered many different themes regarding the current status of the Bamyan province. The Bamyan Film Festival is another achievement of the Bamyan Art Projects, held in August 2017 and 2019. It was the first film festival to be heldin the area—no such festivals have ever taken place in the Bamyan. In addition, the Bamyan Film Academy has proudly produced more than 100 documentaries, short films and TV series. The most eminent one are: Jamila and Jafar TV series, Single mom a documentary directed by Aqila Farahmand and Bakhty’s dream from Nikbakht Farahmand. And it is more pleasant to state, that these products could shine in national and international stages in recent years and, could reveal the aspects of lives in Afghanistan. It seemed that people of Bamyan were eager to accomplish the rebuilding process, but, once more, the dark night came and tried to stop the stars from blinking and the birds from flying. Once more! After 20 years, again the Taliban took over Kabul and by the time they started ruling, the art society was hit strongly by their ruthless fist and every art project and products are forbidden. The Taliban closed the doors of cinemas and music halls; they broke the musical instruments and shut the doors of many art centers in Afghanistan. In addition, many Afghan artists, filmmakers and musician fled the country and are seeking asylum in a place where they can at least live safely and are not forbidden because of their interests, Once more we returned to those days when even breathing was forbidden. Once more, the Afghan cinema got affected.
But it is a little different now, Afghanistan is not the country which it is was 20 years ago; the Taliban are not changed but the people are! In this period of time Rahman is not alone! “I am not the only one who wants to stand for his identity and for Buddha’s identity!”
“Now we are a team (Bamyan Film Academy); hundreds of Afghan girls and boys from different corners of the world will stand for their interests and will not give up on their dream of becoming a filmmaker.”
Homa Saadat is an Afghan girl born in November 1999, while the Taliban was ruling the country. Homa was a student of the Engineering Faculty at Kabul University before the Taliban seized Kabul. Now, she is studying politics at Asian University for Women. Recently, due to her interest in art and literature, she joined the Bamyan Film Academy.

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