International Short Film Festival 2007, Independent Films on Iran

Afghanistan: A Country without an Image

Afghanistan and Tajikistan special's poster.Afghanistan is without an image for various reasons. Afghan women are faceless, which means that 10 million out of a population of 20 million don't get a chance to be seen. A nation, half of which is not even seen by its own women, is a nation without an image. During the last few years, there has been no broadcast television - only a few two-page black and white newspapers: Shariat, Heevad, and Anise; purely written material with no pictures. This is the sum total of media in Afghanistan. Religious law strictly prohibits painting and photography. Furthermore, journalists are generally not allowed to enter and when they are, they are forbidden from taking pictures of the society.

In the 21st Century, not only are there no film productions in Afghanistan, there are no movie theaters as well. Previously, there were fourteen cinemas that showed Indian movies, and film studios made small productions imitating Indian movies, but all those have been closed. In a cinematic world that produces two to three thousand films per year, nothing is coming from Afghanistan. Hollywood, however, produced a movie called Rambo, based on Afghanistan.

The whole movie was filmed in Hollywood and not one Afghan was included. The only authentic scene was Rambo‚s presence in Peshawar, Pakistan, and that was thanks to the art of back projection! It was the only portrayal of Afghanistan, and was merely employed for action sequences and creating excitement. Is this Hollywood‚s image of a country 10% of whose people were decimated, 30% of whom became refugees, and which currently has about one million dying of hunger?

The Russians produced two films based on the memoirs of Russian soldiers during the occupation of Afghanistan. The Mujahedin made a few films after the Russian retreats, which were essentially propagandist war movies and not a true representation of the situation of the past or present-day Afghanistan. They are basically heroic portrayals of a few Afghans fighting in the deserts.

Two feature films have been produced in Iran on the situation of Afghan immigrants, Friday and Rain. I made two films, The Cyclist and Kandahar. This is the entire catalog of images of Afghans in the Iranian and world media. Even in worldwide TV productions there are only a limited number of documentaries. Perhaps it is a worldwide decision to keep Afghanistan as a country without an image.


The historical picture of this imageless country:

Afghanistan emerged when it separated from Iran. It used to be an Iranian province some two hundred and fifty years ago and part of Greater Khorasan province in the era of Nadir Shah. While returning from India one midnight, Nadir Shah was murdered in Ghoochan. Ahmad Abdali, as Afghan commander in Nadir Shah‚s army, fled along with a regiment of four thousand soldiers under his command. He declared independence for a part of the Iranian territory; hence Afghanistan was created.

In those days, Afghanistan was comprised overwhelmingly of cattle breeders, ruled by tribes. Since Ahmad Abdali belonged to the Pashtoon tribe, naturally he could not have been accepted as the absolute authority by other tribes, such as the Tajik, Hazareh and Uzbek. Thus, for governing the country, it was agreed that each tribe be ruled by its own leaders and the rulers collectively form a tribal federation known as the ‘Loya Jirga.‚ Ever since, a more just and appropriate form of governing has yet to emerge in Afghanistan. The Loya Jirga system is an indication that not only has Afghanistan never evolved economically from a cattle-breeding form of existence, it has also never moved beyond tribal rule and has failed to achieve a sense of Afghan nationalism. An Afghan does not regard himself as an Afghan until he leaves his homeland and is regarded with pity or patronization. In Afghanistan, each Afghan is a Pashtoon, Hazareh, Uzbek, or Tajik.

In comparison to Iran, the Afghanistan that shares a common history prior to two hundred and fifty years ago affords a clear difference. In Iran, we are Iranians first and nationalism is the primary aspect of our perception of our common identity. In Afghanistan, to the contrary, all are primarily members of a tribe, and tribalism is the first aspect of identity. This is the most obvious difference between the national spirit of an Iranian and that of an Afghan. Even in the presidential elections in Iran, the candidate‚s ethnicity has no national significance and draws no special vote.

In Afghanistan, since the era of Ahmad Abdali until today when the Taliban rule over 95% of the country, the main leaders have always been from the Pashtoon tribe. (Except for the nine months of Habibullah Galehkani‚s rule, known as Bacheh Sagha, and the two years of the Tajik Burhannuddin Rabbani respectively, Tajiks have never held power.) However, the people of Afghanistan, since the time of Ahmad Abdali until today, have always been content with tribal federalism. What does this indicate in comparison with the situation in Iran?

Unlike Iran during Reza Shah‚s rule, when tribalism was weakened and replaced by nationalism, it did not happen in Afghanistan. Even the Mujahedin of Afghanistan never fought foreign enemies in a unified manner; rather each tribe fought with foreign enemies in their own regions. During the making of Kandahar, while I was in the refugee camps at the border of Iran and Afghanistan, I realized that even those Afghan refugees who have lived in difficult camp conditions for over ten years did not accept being Afghan as a national identity. They still had conflicts over being Tajik, Hazareh or Pashtoon.

Inter-tribal marriages still do not take place among Afghans, nor is any business conducted between them. And even in the most minor of conflicts, the danger of extreme bloodshed prevails. I once witnessed a violent skirmish break out between two groups over cutting ahead in a bread line.

In the Niatak refugee camp (on the border of Iran and Afghanistan), which accommodates five thousand residents, it is not easy for Pashtoon and Hazareh children to play with each other. This sometimes leads to mutual aggression among children. Tajiks and Hazarehs consider Pashtoons their greatest enemies on earth and vice versa. None of them are even willing to attend each other‚s mosques for praying. We had difficulty seating each other‚s children next to each other to watch a movie. They offered a compromise wherein the Hazareh and Pashtoon children were to take turns watching the movie. However, finally, the movie was cancelled.

Despite the many diseases prevalent in this camp and lack of doctors, when a doctor was brought in from the city, the camp didn‚t give priority to treating the most urgent cases first. Only a tribal order of treatment was countenanced. They appointed a day for Hazareh patients and another for Pashtoons. In addition, class distinctions among the Pashtoons prevented them from coming to the clinic on the same day.

In shooting scenes that needed extras, we had to decide to choose from among either Hazarehs or Pashtoons, though all of these five thousand refugees were in the same boat. Yet, tribal disposition came first in any decisions. Of course, the majority was unfamiliar with cinema and, like my grandmother, thanked God for never having set foot inside a movie theater.

The reason for Afghanistan‚s perpetual tribalism rests with its naturally cattle-breeding economy. Each Afghan tribe is trapped in a valley with geographical walls and is the natural prisoner of a culture stemming from a mountainous environment and cattle-breeding economy. Ethnicity and the culture of tribalism is the product of cattle-breeding conditions rooted in the deep valleys of Afghanistan. Belief in tribalism is as deep as those valleys. The topography of Afghanistan is 75% mountainous of which only 7% is suitable for farming. It lacks any semblance of industry.

Due to its sole consistent econo-natural potential, i.e., the pastures (in non-drought years, of course), Afghanistan is dependent upon cattle-breeding and this cattle-breeding is in turn the foundation of tribalism and it is subsequently the basis for long-term domestic disputes, which is not only an impediment to Afghanistan‚s achieving the modernist stage of the 21st Century but also hinders it from obtaining a national identity. There is no intrinsic popular belief in what is called Afghanistan and Afghans. The different tribes of Afghanistan are not yet ready to be absorbed into a bigger collective identity called the people of Afghanistan. Contrary to the misnomer of religious war, the origin of disputes lies with tribal conflict. The Tajiks who fight the Taliban today are both Muslim and Sunni - as are the Taliban.

The wisdom of Ahmad Abdali is yet to be appreciated for having created the concept of tribal federalism. He was smarter than those who contemplate the ruling of one tribe over all others or one individual over a nation - when tribalism and the economic infrastructure were still intact.

By Mohsen Makhmalbaf


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