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As the shock of the Taliban’s swift seizure of complete power in Afghanistan stills reverberates around the world following the hardline extremist group’s dramatic capture of the capital Kabul on Aug. 15, concern and conversations have now begun turning to what the future holds for the country.
Despite recent attempts at assurances by the Taliban that they don’t want any “internal or external enemies,” very few people appear to be in any doubt that life for millions of Afghans — especially women — who aren’t among the thousands to have already fled has irrevocably changed for the worse.
Much is still unknown, especially with the Taliban clearly being far more concerned with their public image than they were in the 1990s, but on the cultural and filmmaking front there remains little hope of any of the progress that has been made over the last two decades remaining intact, with potential harsh dangers for those involved. This was highlighted in a powerful statement posted online as the Taliban entered Kabul by Sahraa Karimi, the Afghan filmmaker and general director of the country’s national film company Afghan Film, who warned that the new rulers would impose a strictly Islamic state on Afghanistan and could seek to punish artists.
“I write to you with a broken heart and a deep hope that you can join me in protecting my beautiful people, especially filmmakers, from the Taliban,” she wrote. “They have massacred our people, they kidnapped many children, they sold girls as child brides to their men. … It’s a humanitarian crisis, and yet the world is silent. … They will ban all art. I and other filmmakers could be next on their hit list.”
Many of those working in Afghanistan’s admittedly tiny film industry who still remain inside the country are understandably keeping a low profile (Karimi later revealed that she had managed to escape), but The Hollywood Reporter spoke to two Afghan directors based overseas and one Oscar-winning U.S. director who has covered it extensively — all three of whom are trying to help friends and colleagues get the right paperwork to leave — about their thoughts on the future.
“All of us Afghans, especially the ones living in Afghanistan, are all just holding a collective breath to see what unfolds,” says U.S.-based filmmaker Sedika Mojadidi, whose 2018 documentary Facing The Dragon chronicled the struggles of two Afghan women — a member of parliament and a TV journalist — as they attempted to help reform their country.
“So I think it’s too soon to make any definite conclusions, but I can tell you it’s not going to be good. I don’t think anyone has any illusions about that.” Underlining this point, Mojadidi says that the politician from Facing The Dragon was due to return to Kabul after a trip to Istanbul, but has been urged — for the sake of her own freedom — not to do so.
For Hassan Fazili, who developed theater plays, documentaries, short films and several TV serials while in Afghanistan but is now based in Germany, the cultural future for his home country is as bleak as can be.
“Even if we pretend that people won’t be arrested or killed, there’s no hope for the future for culture, cultural activities, filmmaking or making art in general,” he tells THR. “Because as we all know, the policies of the Taliban are to destroy these things. It’s a taboo, like for women — they cannot accept women going out to do social activities.”
Fazili comes with first hand experience of the Taliban, which put a bounty on his head in 2014, forcing him to escape the country. Shortly after his TV documentary Peace in Afghanistan — profiling Taliban commander Mullah Tur Jan, who surrendered to the government — aired on Afghan TV, its protagonist was murdered, and Fazili and his crew were sent death threats. He fled with his family, a three-year odyssey into Europe captured on mobile phone cameras that he turned into the Sundance-bowing 2019 film Midnight Traveler.
But Fazili’s anger isn’t solely reserved for Afghanistan’s new rulers, pointing to the country’s notoriously corrupt previous governments — which he claims were in cahoots with the Taliban, stopping any attempts to destroy the group and even assisting it militarily (he says he captured this in a documentary about the Afghan army). It was also the government — not the Taliban — that imposed the hardline restrictions that saw Fazili forced to close a cafe for artists that he had opened, a clear indication that while things may now get worse, Afghanistan hasn’t had anything even approaching cultural freedom in recent years.
“This is just an example of how we were sandwiched in the middle of these two big forces — facing both the Taliban and at the same time the Afghan government,” he says.
Even from the first few days of their rule, it’s clear from the press conferences the Taliban have held that this is a very different-looking group than the one that controlled much of the country in the 1990s. Mojadidi says they’re “much more savvy, smarter and organized” than they were, and also more diverse, coming from all the regions and not solely a Pashtun movement as it was previously.
“However, while it’s a very different Taliban, I don’t think they care enough that they’re going to fundamentally change their core beliefs,” she says.
This potential gulf between the Taliban’s current news-fronting appearance and actual ideology is one of the chief warnings from New York-based documentarian Carol Dysinger, who has spent 15 years in and out of Afghanistan making films, including 2020’s Oscar-winning short Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), following a class of girls at Skateistan, a nonprofit that began as a skate school in Kabul in 2007 but grew into an educational initiative.
“They’ve learned a lot from ISIS. I don’t think they’ve been penetrated by them, but they watched and they paid attention and they’re going to be a lot more careful of their image,” she says, adding that they don’t want to become a “pariah state.”
But the real danger for Dysinger — also behind docs such as 2010’s Camp Victory, Afghanistan, detailing the efforts by U.S. forces to build a functioning Afghan military — comes when the current chaos dies down, the news bulletins and headlines move elsewhere and people start to look away.
“Because the minute the world stops looking at Afghanistan, that’s when we’ll see what the Taliban really do,” she says. “And they’re not going to do it [first] in Kabul, they’re going to do it in Kandahar and smaller rural regions, and then it will slowly — as it did last time — work its way to Kabul. So we have to keep our eyes on them through media and news.”
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