Cinema of exile: the discovery by an Afghan of a “forbidden art”

An inspiring account of the successful establishment of the Bamyan Film Academy.

Cinema is the transparent mirror and the powerful voice of society and its cultures. So if you want to suppress a society, start at its throat and silence it – that’s exactly what the Taliban did with Afghan society. But, did the people accept that and stop raising their voices? Could the Taliban really prevent the young Afghan filmmaker Rahman Alemi from realizing his dream and showing the world the beautiful face of his country? and could the Taliban and their unwanted legacy in Afghan society be targeting the “artistic 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 advice and his 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 Masters in Digital Filmmaking at Southbank London. Rahman’s comparative mind was always comparing his new country and his homeland; the Big Ben (the big bell of the clock that chimes in London) and the Buddha (the statue of Buddha in Afghanistan) which in 2001 the Afghan Taliban during their previous reign, blew up because they thought that none other than Allah is worthy of worship, but the Taliban did not know that Buddha was Bamyan’s identity and a legacy of Bamyan’s glory, just like Big Ben is for London.
The Taliban succeeded in their plan to suppress the identity of the Afghan people by suppressing the Afghan Buddha. This is what made Rahman think of starting a revolution in Afghan cinema and showing the people the way to express themselves, the way to rebuild their identity and show it to the world. Rahman Alemi returned to Afghanistan in 2017 and, as part of a master’s project, began teaching local students in filmmaking. How to tell a story with a camera? How to make your voice heard and talk about your culture, your society and your feelings? He taught 40 students (selected from 300 people) from 2017 to 2019. Bamyan Academy of Arts started gaining traction by producing over 100 short documentaries and feature films and organizing film festivals in Bamyan . The Bamyan Academy of Arts has become the premier film training center located in central Afghanistan, and in 2019 produced more than a third of Afghanistan’s total output. “I started training very simply. Sharing a camera among 40 people, for the first time in Bamyan’s history, I taught visual arts in both pre-production and post-production. The training was very popular and the outcome of the stories was remarkable,” said Rahman Alemi. He forged ahead despite the difficulties and obstacles of pursuing art in a religious community with less awareness of film and art; he deeply explored the situation of Afghan cinema and the need for new approaches to reinvigorate it. The Bamyan Film Project has been a successful way to do this; a way of reconciling both culture and religion with art.

Bamyan Film Academy students in training.

Why did it start in Bamyan?
Bamyan is the heart of Afghanistan, a province of unique geographical beauty and rich history. Before Islam, this province connected India, Iran, China and Central Asian countries. Bamyan has historically been part of the Silk Road and the intersection of human civilizations of ancient cities, and boasted of large Buddha statues, where religious extremists first shaved the faces of Bamyan statues because of religious beliefs, then blew them up; more than half a million people live there in Bamyan. “We chose Bamyan as the origin of this project to have the beautiful nature and geography for our shots and the stories as resources for making films. Moreover, after the failure of the Taliban and the establishment of a new government, the Buddha statues were placed among the cultural heritages and UNESCO began to reconstruct them. But what about the people of Bamyan who will rebuild their broken hearts and hear their stories? These were reason enough for us to start this film project in Bamyan. Fortunately, we were welcomed very warmly by the population. And their indescribable interest in film and cinema made me more committed to my decision and we were able to successfully start Bamyan Film Academy. Once the project matured, the focus shifted to how film education can preserve intangible cultural heritage in a historic place like Bamyan. Luckily, more than 120 Bamyan students have taken the opportunity to become YouTubers, TV presenters and even filmmakers.
The short films and documentaries covered many different themes regarding the current status of 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 held in the region – no such festival has ever took place in Bamyan. Moreover, Bamyan Film Academy has proudly produced more than 100 documentaries, short films and TV series. The most prominent are: the TV series Jamila and Jafar, Single mom a documentary directed by Aqila Farahmand and Bakhty’s dream by Nikbakht Farahmand. And it is more pleasant to say that these products have been able to shine on the national and international stages in recent years and, could reveal the aspects of life in Afghanistan. It seemed that the people of Bamyan were eager to complete the rebuilding process, but once again the dark night came and tried to keep the stars from blinking and the birds from flying. One more time! After 20 years, the Taliban once again took control of Kabul and as they began to rule, the artistic society was hit hard by their ruthless fist and all artistic projects and products were banned. The Taliban closed the doors of cinemas and music halls; they broke musical instruments and closed the doors of many art centers in Afghanistan. Additionally, many Afghan artists, filmmakers and musicians have fled the country and are seeking asylum in a place where they can at least live safely and are not banned due to their interests. Once again we have returned to the days when even breathing was forbidden. Once again, Afghan cinema is affected.
But it’s a bit different now, Afghanistan is not the country it was 20 years ago; the Taliban have not changed but the people have! In this period of time, Rahman is not alone! “I’m not the only one who wants to defend his identity and that of Buddha!”
“Now we are a team (Bamyan Film Academy); Hundreds of Afghan girls and boys from different corners of the world will defend their interests and will not give up on their dream of becoming filmmakers.
Homa Saadat is an Afghan girl born in November 1999, when the Taliban ruled the country. Homa was a student at Kabul University’s Faculty of Engineering before the Taliban took over Kabul. Now she is studying politics at the Asian University for Women. Recently, due to her interest in art and literature, she joined the Bamyan Film Academy.

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