Siddiqullah Barmak, filmmaker
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Afghanistan’s best-known filmmaker is Siddiqullah Barmak (b 1962), who studied filmmaking at the All Union State Cinema School in Moscow. He was arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban but escaped and fled to the north, an adventure he describes as being like a film. He filmed in Mazar and the Pansjir, but in 1999 he fled to Pakistan where he made some documentaries for NGOs to generate some income. ‘But I have a strange feeling for my country – so as soon as the Taliban left, I returned to Kabul’.
Now Director of the Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs’ Film Department, he is responsible for film production, film archives, importing films and checking that imported films are suitable for Afghanistan. He is trying to make contact with foreign film companies with the aim of acquiring original films for the cinemas ‘in order to staunch the flow of copies from India’, which are dubbed or sub_title_d in Hindi. Of course the perfect solution is to make high-quality Afghan films which will entice the audience away from the imports. Siddiqullah Barmak has many applications for licences to make films and he appreciates the flowering of this art. Other than the state-run Afghan Film they are all private and he expects them to produce between them 10 to 12 films each year, as well as promotional and educational films for NGOs or companies.
Despite his new responsibilities as the ministry official in charge of Afghanistan’s film industry, Siddiqullah Barmak still finds time for filmmaking. Completed in early 2003, his last film Osama (‘Rainbow’, 85 minutes, 2003) starred Marina Gulbahari, a 13 year-old with no previous film experience selected from the Aschiana School for Street Children, along with numerous other actors with no formal training. It is the story of a young girl during the time of the Taliban in Kabul. With no men in the house to escort the three women, they are unable to go out to look for food, so Marina is shorn and dressed in boys’ clothes and sent to work. Her life changes dramatically when the Taliban decide she is to join the other young recruits to learn to be a Talib. In this film Siddiqullah Barmak has reached the permissible limits of propriety when he shows women singing and dancing at a wedding party. When the Taliban come to the door burqas are donned and the party becomes a ‘wake’ with religious chanting instead of songs. The film was feted at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. When asked whether he would show the film in Afghanistan he replies ‘Why not? The Afghan people will love this film because it is their life.’
When asked about exchanges Siddiqullah Barmak didn’t ask for people to come and give training or bring aid – but he was very excited about the possibility of ‘introducing Afghanistan’s face to the world through films.’