De­fy­ing the Tal­iban, a (bad) film at a time

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Tim sul­li­van

JALAL­ABAD, Afghanistan— In real life he’s a phar­ma­cist, a po­lite young man who dis­penses an­tibi­otics and ad­vice in a tiny Jalal­abad shop barely 40 miles from where Osama bin Laden dis­ap­peared into the moun­tains.

But when evening falls, when Zhaid Khan shuts the phar­macy’s gates and sends his as­sis­tant home, he be­comes some­one else. Then he’s a lover (al­beit a chaste one). He’s a singer (or at least a lip-syncher). He’s a fighter, a hero, a de­fender of the pow­er­less. Zhaid Khan is a movie star. The quiet phar­ma­cist is the ro­man­tic hero of the mi­nus­cule Pashto-lan­guage vi­sion of Hollywood set amid the towns of east­ern Afghanistan. It’s a re­gion where Amer­i­can drones reg­u­larly hover over­head, Tal­iban attacks come all too reg­u­larly, and it takes more than a lit­tle courage to be an ac­tor.

Khan is fa­mous across Jalal­abad, and fans some­times come to the phar­macy to gawk at him and ask for au­to­graphs. Some­times, though, the Tal­iban seek him out, too. They leave him notes in the night, warn­ing they’ll burn down his shop and kill him. One day, he fears, they’ll fol­low through on their threats.

But a hand­ful of Afghan ac­tors are mak­ing a cin­e­matic stand. They do it with movies that are sold here only on DVD, will never make it to Western cine­mas and can with­stand only the gen­tlest of crit­i­cism.

There are shaky cam­era an­gles, wildly aw­ful hair­pieces and di­a­logue with the cadence of a news con­fer­ence.

Each film is a patch­work of themes — ro­mance, thriller, weepy fam­ily drama — knit­ted to­gether by mar­tial arts bat­tles and lots of squirt­ing sheep’s blood bought from lo­cal butch­ers. The bad guys all seem to have scars, limps or both. The good guys of­ten wear white.

The films are of­ten made with lit­tle be­yond a cam­corder, a cou­ple of work­shop lights and some pi­rated edit­ing soft­ware.

In a coun­try where most peo­ple live in des­per­ate poverty, the movies show fan­tasies of mid­dle-class Afghan life along­side the ac­tion and ad­ven­ture. There are peo­ple with steady jobs, help­ful govern­ment of­fi­cials, un­cor­rupted po­lice.

“We are chang­ing how peo­ple think,” said Khan. “Young peo­ple see our movies and they know that Afghanistan is not just AK-47s and war. There’s some­thing else here, too.”

Ac­tresses tend to be rar­i­ties in Pashto-lan­guage films — few fam­i­lies al­low their daugh­ters to en­ter the movie busi­ness, so nearly all ac­tresses must come from Pak­istan. Sex isn’t even hinted at.

Song-and-dance scenes, which are at the heart of most South Asian movies, steer clear of risque moves, with ac­tors of­ten lip-synch­ing to mu­sic lifted from Pak­istani movies.

The Tal­iban hardly ex­ist in these movies. Re­li­gious ex­trem­ism is some­times hinted at, but most bad guys are generic gang­sters or drug smug­glers.

To the Tal­iban, though, the moviemak­ers are evil.

The Mus­lim ex­trem­ists de­test all forms of pub­lic en­ter­tain­ment, par­tic­u­larly any de­pic­tion of the hu­man form, which they say is for­bid­den by the Qu­ran. When the Tal­iban ran the coun­try, movies were for­bid­den, cine­mas were closed and videos could only be watched in se­cret. Af­ter they were forced from power, that quickly changed.

“One week af­ter the Tal­iban were gone, we were film­ing again,” said Fa­rooq Sabit, a one­time kung fu mas­ter who runs a small Kabul pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio and has di­rected a half­dozen or so movies. He works in Dari, Afghanistan’s most widely spo­ken lan­guage. The Dari film in­dus­try is bet­ter off than the Pashto movie world. The Tal­iban have far less in­flu­ence in Dari-speak­ing re­gions.

If the Pashto speak­ers have the phar­ma­cist to thrill to, the Dari film world has Saleem Sha­heen, who might be the coun­try’s biggest star. He also has the ego of a Hollywood mogul.

“My in­ter­views are very in­ter­est­ing,” he said, sit­ting down with a vis­it­ing re­porter. “More peo­ple will read your ar­ti­cle be­cause of me.”

Through a small act­ing school, re­lent­less self-pro­mo­tion and even more self-con­fi­dence, he has been a force in Afghan moviemak­ing for decades.

If noth­ing else, Sha­heen makes a liv­ing at it. That makes him a rar­ity in Afghanistan.

Many, par­tic­u­larly in the Pashto-lan­guage in­dus­try, don’t get paid at all.

“We call them and say ‘Come on, we’re shoot- ing,’” said Mo­ham­mad Shah Ma­jroh, a Jalal­abad bu­reau­crat who over­sees film per­mits. “If it’s lunchtime, we feed them.”

Stars such as Khan are lucky if they make more than a few hun­dred dol­lars per film, which are shot for any­where from $1,000 to $20,000 and sold on DVD in mar­kets for about $1 apiece.

The hand­ful of Afghan movie the­aters that sur­vive are re­served for Bol­ly­wood song-and­dance films from In­dia. They are easy-to-fol­low spec­ta­cles that in­clude what Afghan movies do not: good pro­duc­tion qual­ity, heav­ing cleav­age and beau­ti­ful women in skimpy saris.

“The In­dian women and those clothes,” Ma­jroh said, sneer­ing. Bol­ly­wood’s film­mak­ers, he added, don’t face the dangers of the Afghan movie in­dus­try.

Shafiqul­lah Shaiq knows about those dangers.

The wealthy Jalal­abad busi­ness­man be­gan mak­ing movies a cou­ple of years ago. First the Tal­iban left him notes, telling him to aban­don the film busi­ness. Then they at­tacked his of­fice with grenades and sprayed it with ma­chine-gun fire. Then they at­tacked it again.

No one has been in­jured yet, but he now rings his of­fice com­pound with gun­men.

“I barely leave any­more,” said Shaiq, who wrote, di­rected and starred in “Black Poi­son,” an anti-opium movie, and later made a se­quel. He ac­knowl­edges their qual­ity was far from ideal.

“I know these movies were not re­ally good enough for the rest of the world,” he said. Then he added, with more than a touch of cin­e­matic no­blesse oblige: “I made them for the poor Afghan peo­ple.”

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