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Last Updated: Friday, 12 November 2004, 13:57 GMT
Women struggle in Afghan cinema

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Kabul

"Look, there goes the wife of the mullah!"

This is what boys in the Afghan capital, Kabul, cry when 14-year-old Marina Gulbahari steps out of her house.

Marina Gulbahari
Gulbahari, the star of 'Osama', is still taunted for acting in films
The taunts refer to her star role in Osama, the first feature film to be made in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taleban regime.

In this dark film, set in Taleban-ruled Afghanistan, Gulbahari plays a girl who dresses up like a boy to earn money for the family.

She is forcibly married off to an old mullah after her disguise is blown.

The neighbourhood taunts have not deterred Gulbahari from pursuing a fully-fledged film career after Osama, directed by Kabul-based filmmaker Siddik Barmak, gained critical acclaim around the world and took her to festivals in Seoul and New Delhi.

Gulbahari's decision to opt for a career in films is considered to be bold in a conservative society where women are still recovering from the hangover of the repressive Taleban regime when they were forbidden to work or go out alone.

After all, the only film the Tajik girl had watched before she was spotted by Barmak begging on the Kabul streets was a grainy, pirated version of Titanic during the Taleban rule - a furtive late night television show at home.

Film 'epidemic'

A year after the release of Osama, Gulbahari has already acted in four films, and gone back to school to catch up on her lost years when she was forced to beg with her brother for the family after the Taleban destroyed her father's music shop.

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was not difficult to get women to act in films. The war and the Taleban rule changed mentalities
Siddik Barmak, Filmmaker
"I want to be actress all my life. I want to grow as an actress. One day, I even want to direct my own film," says Gulbahari.

Acting, she says, has changed her life: two years ago, she earned $14 for her 45-day shooting stint for Osama; and this year, she picked up a $4000 cheque as a prize for her performance at a film festival in Seoul.

With the money, Gulbahari has bought a new family home, and is paying for her own studies.

She is one of only a small number of girls and women stepping out to face the cameras and earn a living in a country where, according to filmmaker Barmak, "there is an epidemic of movie making today".

This "epidemic" comes after Afghanistan produced barely 50 movies between 1947 and 2002, according to one estimate.

Young, impressionable movie makers armed with digital cameras funded by small production houses in Kabul are making love stories and black comedies on modest budgets ranging from $10,000 to $30,000.

But getting women to act in the films remains an uphill task, and more ambitious filmmakers are now scouring neighbouring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for heroines.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, it was not difficult to get women to act in films. The war and the Taleban rule changed mentalities. Now people cling to nonsensical traditions as shields against what they think is cultural pollution", says Siddik Barmak.

Rage against repression

But the filmmakers are not giving up easily.

Saba Sahar has returned from a life in exile to resume acting
In a tarpaulin shed in the state-run Afghan Film's musty offices in Kabul, filmmaker Engineer Latif is shooting a educational film on women's literacy.

On the carpeted floor sit a group of veiled women, awaiting the director's instructions.

"Show me your faces!", Latif exhorts the women. "You seem to be living in the stone age." The women obey.

Sometimes, a collective rage against repression drives women to face the cameras.

Barmak found this out when he needed over 900 women for Osama's striking opening scene where a group of blue veiled women are chased by the Taleban through crumbling Kabul streets.

"When I went to a NGO to find out whether the women working there would be willing to act, more than 1000 of them signed up.

"Most were poor, and needed the money. But many told me that they wanted to show their protest by acting in the scene," he says.

Marina Gulbahari's father asked her what kind of film she was doing when she told him that she wanted to act in Osama.

"I told him it was a film which shows the cruelty and repression of the Taleban. He said, 'Go ahead'."

Brave exceptions

Engineer Latif's upcoming $1.5 million feature on the first Taleban offensive against the Northern Alliance will feature two heroines.

Amina Jafari
Amina Jafari has acted in 10 films in three years

But he could only manage to get one - a Kabul beautician - from his country. The other girl is from Tajikistan.

"The civil war and the Taleban have affected the mindset of our women. So it is difficult to get women to act here," he says.

There are exceptions like Saba Sahar though.

The svelte 30-year-old daughter of a teacher father and a working mother first faced the cameras as a girl 15 years ago in a Dari language film.

After spending time in exile in Moscow, Tehran and Peshawar, she is back in her country with her husband and three children to act in films and plays.

"It will be not easy for a while. After a play in Kabul after the fall of the Taleban, a man sidled up to me and said, 'See what happens to you if you act again'," says Sahar.

Amina Jafari, 24 years and 10 films-in-three-years old, still gets teased for a commercial she did for bread.

"'Here comes the bread girl!' the boys go all the time. But I am not daunted. I will act, and begin directing too. Just wait."




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