- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA

A Golden Globe-winning Afghan director who made the country’s first post-Taliban movie says he’s worried the group’s resurgence may threaten artistic freedom again.

Insurgents have gained so much ground in Afghanistan that even the top U.S. commander there says if U.S. troops don’t make progress in the next year, defeating them will be impossible. Some fear that the Afghan government may never control the south. The Obama administration is pondering whether to boost its current deployment of 67,000 soldiers.

The uncertainty brings back bad memories for Siddiq Barmak, who lived in exile in Pakistan from 1996 to 2002 during the rule of the Taliban, which destroyed film archives and movie theaters.

“I can tell you that for me, as a filmmaker, now it’s very difficult to say, ‘OK, I should go for my next project,’ Mr. Barmak said Tuesday from the sidelines of South Korea’s Pusan International Film Festival, where he was promoting his new film, “Opium War.”

The 47-year-old director says he was “so optimistic” when he returned to Afghanistan to make “Osama.” The story of a mother who disguises her daughter as a young boy so the daughter can become her escort - the Taliban banned women from traveling alone - won the Golden Globe prize for best foreign film in 2004.

Six years later, however, Mr. Barmak’s gloomy outlook is reflected in “Opium War,” a dark comedy about the interactions of two American soldiers who survive a helicopter crash and the family of a small-time opium farmer. The Americans bicker - the injured white soldier bosses around his black compatriot - get high on opium and mistakenly fire at an abandoned tank that turns out to house the Afghan family.

Meanwhile, the opium farmer is forced to give away his daughter to his buyers to make up for a poor harvest. When a United Nations team arrives to set up a temporary polling booth, the Afghans are confused and end up delivering a baby in one of the ballot boxes.

“The film is completely, exactly the reflection of the situation,” Mr. Barmak says, both “grotesque” and “funny.”

“I really worry about it because there is no guarantee for this newborn democracy in Afghanistan. No country - not even the U.N., America, Britain, or the European Union - no one can give us a guarantee that this democracy will continue,” he says.

The $700,000 film was shot before the presidential elections on Aug. 20. The race was tainted by claims of mass fraud, but Mr. Barmak says his movie was prescient of the chaos in his country.

“You can see how it’s embarrassing. Cheating on the election,” he says.

Mr. Barmak says Afghan cinema has enjoyed a renaissance since the Taliban were forced out of Kabul, with young filmmakers shooting shorts, features and documentaries in digital format. The local theater market is dominated by Indian movies, but about 25 to 35 Afghan films are released every year, he says. There are nine movie theaters in Kabul - few outside of the capital - but many Afghans are still afraid of insurgent attacks and often prefer to watch DVDs at home.

The explosion of TV channels - Mr. Barmak says there are 25 private TV channels countrywide, 17 of them in Kabul - has provided steady work for filmmakers.

The persistent Taliban insurgency makes many filmmakers uncertain about their futures, Mr. Barmak says. “They are working in a dark room,” he says.

Still, he vows to plunge ahead with his next project: a love story set in the time leading up to the Taliban’s collapse.

“I’m sure that I’m going to make it. Even if Afghanistan is not secure, I will find another place to make it. Because I’m a filmmaker, and I feel that I have to be in this field, and I have to make a film,” he says.

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