Jafar Panahi may be stuck in an Iranian prison, but his film is playing in Afghanistan.
The popular Iranian neo-realist filmmaker was sentenced to six years last December for his alleged role in protesting his country’s contested 2009 presidential election. Panahi’s films are banned at home, but one – “Accordion,” an insightful short about two young buskers who have their accordion confiscated, only to find their oppressor trying to earn money with it – made its way across the border for Afghanistan’s inaugural Autumn Human Rights Film Festival in Kabul on October 1.
The festival, Afghan filmmakers hope, will become an annual showcase for films that are suppressed elsewhere around the region. “Though there are 33 human rights film festivals worldwide, there are none in this region. Bahrain was supposed to have one, but it was cancelled following the protests [in the spring] there,” festival director and filmmaker Malek Shafi’i told EurasiaNet.org.
Shafi’i said the international response has been heartening. Approximately 200 films were entered in the competition, of which 50 from 18 countries will be screened and considered for prizes. Beyond entries from neighboring states, films from Canada, Liberia, France, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and the United States are in the competition.
It has been difficult to get the directors to attend, given safety concerns. Though several had confirmed their participation, most westerners cancelled following the attack on the Kabul offices of the British Council in August. The film festival is being held at the French Institute of Afghanistan, a cultural hub run by the French Embassy.
Organizers had to strike a balance between security concerns and the need for publicity: they sent out detailed information only days before the opening to avert potential violent disruptions.
The themes of the festival – human rights with a focus on discrimination, injustice and violence – touch on sensitive topics in Afghanistan, where many powerbrokers have been accused of such wrongs during the country’s three decades of nearly uninterrupted strife. Afghanistan continues to suffer from “war, impunity and discrimination of all forms,” said James Rodehaver, the deputy director of the Human Rights Unit at the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan.
The documentaries, Rodehaver said, are intended to “inform, spark debate, provoke activism, and inspire people that were formerly inactive.”
Afghan filmmakers’ fiction and documentary contributions cover a range of issues: the alienation of Afghan refugees in Iran; child labor and poverty; rape; drug addiction; disability; and ethnic persecution. A chilling biopic, “Before I Was Good,” follows a young disfigured woman, Zahera, who immolated herself to protest against a forced marriage. “Half Value Life” documents the struggle of Maria Basheer, the first and only provincial chief prosecutor, as she deals with the violence faced by women in abusive domestic situations.
The films do not only cover dismal topics, however. “Look Who Is Driving” examines the director’s own efforts to challenge social taboos by enrolling herself in a Mazar-i-Sharif driving school.
In remarks made at the festival’s opening ceremonies, US Assistant Chief of Mission David Pearce praised the “courage” of the filmmakers “who took a stand” to better their communities and countries.
“Definitely people who are working on this are very courageous,” said Marianne Huber, country director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Bern’s official aid arm. Both the SDC and the US government funded the festival, organized by the Afghan Cinema Club (BASA Film), which supports experimental filmmakers.
Asked whether she was worried the event could provoke violence, Diana Saqeb, the festival’s program director, told EurasiaNet.org that such concerns are too incapacitating to consider. “If I worry about what could happen to me, or my family, it would take all my energy so I don’t think about those things. I need that energy in order to do things like organizing this film festival,” Saqeb said.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.