Afghan Filmmaking on the Edge: Interview with Alka Sadat

March 27, 2011

Doniphan Blair, from Cinesource Magazine, conducted a candid and poignant interview with WVN winning filmmaker, Alka Sadat, who travelled to the Festival from Afghanistan.

CineSource: I am sure you have told it many times—do you get tired of telling your story?

An art renaissance is blooming in Afghanistan, despite or because of the Taliban, which outlawed music and forbade imaging making—except for their own propaganda. Largely unreported in the West, there is the "Afghan Star," the immensely popular "American Idol"-like television talent show, Kabul's brand new art and music schools, its museum, which was destroyed by the Taliban but is now refurbished and has a show of Afghan antiquities on world tour, and a number of bands, from trad to rock.

There has also been an outpouring of filmmaking, especially by women. Indeed, the Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival, which just debuted at the Los Angeles Film School, featured 32 submissions from Afghanistan. Although the best known female filmmakers in Afghanistan, the Makhmalbaf sisters—just out of their teens and with a couple of features apiece—were not represented, another pair of talented sister cineastes were: Alka and Roya Sadat.

While the Makhmalbaf sisters are Iranian, live in Kabul and both their parents are filmmakers, the Sadats emerged "ex nihilo," with no artists in their family and from the western city of Herat. It such be noted, however, Herat is famous for a 15th century queen, Goharshād, who fostered her own renaissance including the poet Sufi Jami and the painter Bazad.

Roya Sadat, now 27, became the first woman to make a film in Afghanistan—beating even the Makhmalbafs—with her hour long dramas "Playing the Taar" and "Three Dots." Alka, now 24, worked production for sister Roya but was tagged to be the family documentarian. While she had never actually seen a documentary before, after a two-week course in Kabul, she started shooting the 25-minute "Half Value Life" (2008), which took the top prize at the Women's Voices Now Festival.

No wonder, it is a rather startling. Not only is "Half Value Life" about a female public prosecutor in Herat, Marya Bashir, a monumental figure who deals daily with wife-beaters, nine year-old wives, and the bombing of her house, the story is provocatively shot and told.

Alka's cinematographer, Humaira Sadat, a cousin, favored extreme closeups, first of feet and hands but then eyes, Sergio Leone-style, which endows the film with an intensity as well as, perhaps, a requisite anonymity. Then Alka inserts a young woman as a witness (played by her sister Roya), putting on her makeup, burka and shoes in the beginning of the film, listening to Bashir's words on the radio, and sobbing when Bashir's house is bombed (she survived). By the end, when Roya walks off to a haunting traditional song, Ms. Sadat has taken control of the art form.

"Where is the spring time of our road... Where, ask, is your voice," the song goes. Considering the singer is a woman, the lyrics are by Roya Sadat and Alka is the filmmaker as well as actor, it would have been a quadruple crime under the Taliban.

After viewing "Half Value Life"'s modern cinematography and storytelling, it is no surprise Ms. Sadat made a lovely narrative short also in the festival, although the title is curious: "We Are Postmodern," 2010. Dialogue-less, it is chronicles the passing of time and life in a small Afghan town. Very much an art film, the stark mountains and mud buildings loom in the background as a love grows between a young man and a blind beggar girl.

When I met Ms. Sadat, at the house rented by the festival—Jim Morrison's old pad in Laurel Canyon, as it happened—I found it hard to believe so much cinema theory and hard work could come out of someone so soft spoken. But, of course, the female identity is under assault where she comes from and the last thing she wants, evidently, is to draw additional attention and headache. While festival staff and more rock star-esque filmmakers flitted about, making coffee, even serving us a couple of excellent cups, Alka agreed to chat despite the fact that she hadn't done her all-important morning makeup (as depicted in the beginning of "Half Value Life"), a testament to her proclivity for open honesty.

CineSource: I am sure you have told it many times—do you get tired of telling your story?

Alka Sadat: [laughs] You want [that] I tell you how I start to make films? When I was young, I want to be a journalist. In that time, Taliban was in Afghanistan—it was very bad time for us. After Taliban, I started to make films with my sister [Roya, 3 years older, also an accomplished filmmaker], in 2004.

She told me to make documentary films and I had the idea I could be a filmmaker but not action—documentary. When I started to make the film, I never see a documentary. I never go to a film school, just I start to work. I started in 2005. At that time, I went to a film workshop for two weeks in Kabul, [put on] by the German Goethe Institute. After I started working. It is about five years. It is my job: documentary film.

So the Taliban was when you were in grade school—were you able to go to school?

No, absolutely no! There were some private schools but secret. But if they understand there is a secret school, they come and close it and beat people—'Why you have school?'

Were you afraid to go to school or were you parents afraid?

They didn't let me go to school because they understand it is too dangerous. My mother teach me at home.

Your mother is educated?


What does your family do?

My father was, before the Taliban, a businessman.

Is there a tradition of education or arts in your family?

No, never.

How about in your neighborhood, any poets, painters, anything?

No, no, no. Before that we start to get ideas [about making a film], no.

So you are growing out of nothing, in a sense?

Yes, yes.

How do you do that? What inspires you? Just your dreams?

Yes. It was a good way that we speak to the international [community] for my country, for everyone. It was a good voice, to show our voice, our people's voice.

Because your people had no voice you personally felt you should make that voice?


That must be very hard. Do you sometimes get depressed or worried?

Actually, when I start working, I have depression. It is not easy to make documentary films, especially in Afghanistan. You can choose an easy subject and make it easy. But if you choose a difficult subject, it is really difficult to work. It is a big risk.

You are scared for your life?

Actually, most people in Afghanistan are scared. We have known a lot of suicide attacks, a lot of things. But especially when you are with a camera in the street, you should be scared.

Everyone is scared?

Yes but [filmmakers] more then others.

So when you are going with your camera to film the judge ['Half Value Life' 2008], you were scared?

At that time, yeah. I was the first person to go to the judge's place with a camera. It was unusual for them because it was 2008.

Marya Bashir, Herat's only female prosecutor, carries her heavy responsibilities with great dignity in Alka Sadat's 'Half Value Life.' photo: A. Sadat

So even though you are scared you simply keep going?

Yes. I still have some projects that are really difficult for me. Right now, I don't want to think about that. It is very difficult to think about: How I start, how I work. I am very [concerned]: how I start my next project. It is like, I am really tired, really tired, but I want to start my next project.

What will it be?

I can't tell you exactly but I want to make a documentary film about the national army in Afghanistan. Actually, there are a lot of people making [narrative] films but I want to make a real film [a documentary] about them, but it is difficult. Maybe they... let's see.

Do people support you, your family, your neighbors?

My neighbors don't know—maybe they don't want [to know]. I don't think about [these] things, I don't speak about these things. And my parents? At first it was difficult, they don't want us to make films, but now they are OK.

Your father approves?

Yes. But if they understand I want to make a film about the national army, they don't let me because that is too dangerous. Sometimes I don't tell them what I am doing. I don't want to make them sad and to worry. When I went to film festival in Italy one year, my parents were really happy for me [because] I am not in Afghanistan and it is not dangerous for me.

What do you think when you go back to Afghanistan?

You know, I try to don't think. When I arrive, I know I will have feelings. I saw my country from very high [in the airplane] and it is like... beautiful.

Do you personally support the US involvement in Afghanistan? Or would you prefer the US Army to simply leave Afghanistan?

You know, actually, I am not sure. In Afghanistan, it is very complicated, very complicated. I am not sure to what I should think, you know. It is very difficult. Actually, it was, like, a few months ago, they said that the US soldiers would leave Afghanistan. At that time I was, like, worried [because] after the international soldiers leave Afghanistan, maybe Taliban get more power or maybe different people start fighting each other.

When you come in Afghanistan or you are from Afghanistan and you see the situation as it is: always different, good and bad. You can't understand what is going on. It is complicated.

Do you talk about politics with your sister or with some friends?

When Afghan people sit together, even if they don't want to speak about political things, they automatically speak. We are in a situation [where] we should speak about this. Everyone has a different idea. We have to speak about this.

Amongst your friends, you don't have a general group opinion— everyone has a different idea?

Yes, almost. Different people think different. Some people like Taliban.

Some of your friends—

No, no, not my friends but some people.

How about your brothers and cousins do some of them like Taliban?

No, no. My brother is really young; he is 12. No one in my family, no one in Herat City [likes the Taliban]. Some people, they are Taliban, we don't know.

In Herat, is there a little group of filmmakers, musicians, anyone starting a rock band?

There are a lot of musicians in Herat and Kabul. There is 'Afghan Star' [the popular talent contest show]. There are a lot of things going on but I don't know because I never see television. I don't like television. I am sorry, I don't have more information.

It is almost like a renaissance because under Taliban there was no art.

Yes, yes.

It must be exciting.


Are you hopeful for Afghanistan?

I don't know. Always, I was hopeful and waiting for peace but it is never happening. If we have peace in Afghanistan everything would be better.

In the last few years, has it gotten better?

For some cities, yeah, it is getting better. I can work now. We have a lot of girls going to school. There are a lot of things that are changing. But if we speak about every city, I can't say. [In] some cities, Taliban are in power, nothing changing. But in Kabul and Herat: a lot of change.

The young people are hopeful in those cities?

Yes, almost.

So you don't like television and didn't see a documentary before you made your movie. Are there any movies that you have seen that you like?

I like comedies. It is fun. I want movies to make me happy not like my movie, to make people sad.

So you would not recommend people see your movie? You would prefer to see a comedy, what type? Indian or Iranian?

Actually, I don't like Indian—don't write this [Sadat later gave permission]. Actually there was some in English I like, I don't know which. Iran has good comedies. Actually, I think 'Friends' is good; I saw three or four episodes. Sometimes, I see serious films, too, because I want to learn something. I saw a lot of films I like but I forgot the names.

Did you ever think to make a comedy?

I already did. It was documentary comedy—it was amazing! It was from the backstage of a TV drama and [had] interviews of serious people. During the editing, I decided to make it into a comedy. Most of them were very serious. And I make fun.

How—by showing them saying something stupid?

Yes, because I put the camera and say I am not recording. I put things [together] to be funny. The director is my sister [Roya]—she have three assistants, all guys. For example, she is very serious during the shooting, she is sometimes fighting, [yelling,] 'Why don't you do that do that!' All of the assistants, they tell me that the director was a very nice person. After I show the director fighting with him. It was a comedy [laughs].

So you are making fun of your sister? Is she OK with that?

She wasn't OK. I say '[but] I [also] show you very serious and working in the Afghan way.' She didn't like it at first '[but] she is OK now.

Are you going to show that movie or is it just for you?

I would like to show because it is a different face of Afghanistan for other countries.

Has any other Afghan filmmaker made a comedy?

I don't know. I didn't see.

Have you seen any of these big films about Afghanistan like 'Kandahar' [2001] by Mahkmalbak or 'Kite Runner' [2004].

Yes, I saw 'Kandahar.'

What did you think of 'Kandahar?'

Don't want to tell because...

'Kite Runner?'

Yes, I saw it. I like it, it was good, but some people told me the book was better. I didn't read the book because I can't find it in Farsi.

It was a pretty good depiction of life in Afghanistan, of the problems?


It was a very strong film because of the men raping the boy—some people were upset. But that is part of life, right?

Yes, yes, I know about this. A lot of people don't like. I don't know, that is real.

It is real, so we have to accept it?

For me, this film show different [problems], like Pashtun and Hazara [the major tribe and the oppressed minority tribe]. It shows them very separated. Film should be to teach the people, to show something negative and positive together.

What do you think would happen if the Taliban took over?

I know because they had power for six years.

Would they break all the cameras?

Yes. I wouldn't be able to work. I can't do anything because they want—I don't know. They say it is Islamic religion but it is not.

What would you say to a young Afghan who wants to express themselves?

You know, I don't have advice for anyone. But, I think for me to say to Afghan young people, 'Don't be afraid of each other because of religion, Shi'a Sunni, because of nations, like Hazara-Tajik. We are all Afghans. We are all friends and don't think about these kind of things.'

What would you say to someone in the United States who wants to help Afghan artists and filmmakers?

I don't want to say anything because they can't understand us and I don't know what I should say.

You would obviously like to keep doing your work and this story about the Afghan army is a difficult story.

Yes, very difficult.

You are attracted to difficult things, even though you are sometimes scared.


Why do you think that is, you just have a strong feeling?

Yes, I have a strong feeling—I follow my feelings.

Thank you very much, thank you for your feelings and your movies.

Thank you and nice meeting you.

Nice meeting you and hopefully next time it will be in Herat.


See Original Article.