Global Cinema 1: Afghanistan – Stray Dogs (2004)

I like watching films from around the world but I thought I might start a regular feature of working rather more methodically through all the world’s countries. Perhaps in time I shall make it to smaller subdivisions, but let’s start big. I had thought I might work through them from largest to smallest, but I don’t want to put all the challenge of finding films from obscure nations at the end of this project, so I’m going more or less alphabetically, starting with Afghanistan. I’ll provide a small potted summary of (let’s face it) the Wikipedia page in each entry.


Afghanistan flagIslamic Republic of Afghanistan افغانستان
population 32.2 million | capital Kabul (4.3m) (کابل) | largest cities Kabul, Kandahar (614k), Herat (556k), Mazar-i-Sharif (469k), Kunduz (357k) | area 652,230 km2 | religion Islam (99.7%) | official languages Dari (دری) and Pashto (پښتو) | major ethnicities Pashtun (47%) and Tajik (27%) | currency Afghani (Af/Afs) [AFN] | internet .af

A mountainous country located on the historic Silk Road, connecting it to major trade routes. Its name historically means “land of the Pashtuns” although it has a wider modern application, and though populated since prehistoric times, politically it was established in the 18th century by the Hotak dynasty and the Durrani Empire. The British, of course, made their influence felt in the following century and fought three Anglo-Afghan Wars, with independence officially declared on 19 August 1919. It was a kingdom until a coup in 1978 installed a President as the head of a democracy. In recent times, fundamentalist Taliban forces took control in the late-1990s, but were pulled into regional conflict following the September 11 attacks, which led to the toppling of this regime and the reinstalment of democracy.

Cinema first came only to the royal court in Afghanistan and it wasn’t until 1923 that the first film was publicly screened. The first Afghan film production was in 1946, and regular production didn’t start until the late-1960s, with training from the Soviets. The Taliban cracked down on cinema upon coming to power in 1996, and film production didn’t begin again until 2002. The NZ documentary A Flickering Truth (2015) was made about the Afghan film archives, while Motley’s Law (2015) is about an American lawyer working in the country. An interesting recent film set in the 1980s is the drama/musical The Orphanage (2019).


سگ‌های ولگرد Sag-haye velgard (Stray Dogs, 2004)

In the 2000s, the Makhmalbaf family really seemed to have a stranglehold on portrayals of post-Taliban Afghanistan, and this film by Marzieh (Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s wife) joins those of her daughters Samira and Hana in depicting some of the turmoil and poverty of the country in this era. It uses neorealist tropes in a very knowing way, even using footage from Bicycle Thieves (1948) as a set-up for the denouement, as well as hooking into a venerable Iranian tradition of films using child protagonists (the girl Gol-Ghotai and the boy Zahed) as a window into a harsh and difficult world. Even a cute dog only sharpens the sense of desperation, and the two kids first try to get the girl’s mother out of jail and then try to get themselves thrown into jail with her. If it sounds tearjerking, it’s never quite played that way, as everyone is just making an effort to get on with living.

Stray Dogs film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marzieh Meshkini مرضیه مشکینی; Cinematographers Ebrahim Ghafori ابراهیم غفوری and Maysam Makhmalbaf میثم مخملباف; Starring Gol-Ghotai گل غتی, Zahed زاهد; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 24 April 2018.

LFF 2019 Day Four: A Thief’s Daughter, The Sharks and The Orphanage (all 2019)

Day four of the London Film Festival is the first weekend, and so the first day on which I have bought myself tickets to more than two films — only three, mind, and with fairly generous spacing, so there’s no running from screen to screen today. Two of them are in Spanish (one is Catalan although mostly in Castilian, the other Uruguyuan) and two are coming of age stories (The Sharks and The Orphanage). Oh, and all three are directed by women of course.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Four: A Thief’s Daughter, The Sharks and The Orphanage (all 2019)”

لذت دیوانگی Lezate divanegi (Joy of Madness, 2004)

There’s nothing particularly polished about this documentary, a sort of extended making-of feature, but it shines in what it captures of the struggle Samira Makhmalbaf undertook to make her film At Five in the Afternoon (2003). It’s also made by Samira’s younger sister Hana (yet another woman making excellent films under the Makhmalbaf Film House banner), herself a teenager at the time, which makes it all the more fascinating. Basically, we see a series of scenes of Samira battling to convince local Afghan actors to take roles in her film (which is primarily about the setbacks in educating women after the Taliban have been ousted from the country). She tries to convince a mullah to drive a cart, and when he starts to feel foolish or inadequate to the task (presumably), she has to convince him not to renege on his word as a cleric. Then there’s her lead actor (Agheleh Rezaie), who takes quite some persuading of the film’s merit, as baseless rumours fly around of the production’s immorality, and that it will kill kids (not to mention require people to wake at four in the morning for several months). Still, we know from the existence of the finished feature (which is excellent) that Samira prevails — the documentary finishes before shooting begins — and we have this document to prove it’s possible for women to make thought-provoking and polished films even under intolerant regimes.

CREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Hana Makhmalbaf حنا مخملباف; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 31 May 2017.

Motley’s Law (2015)

This is another of several recent fascinating documentaries which touches on the evolving situation in the Middle East, specifically the slow rebuilding of Afghanistan, via an American woman who works as a lawyer there for part of the year. As with any documentary, choosing your subject wisely is half the work, and Kimberley Motley jumps off the screen as a big personality, and the fact of being the only foreign lawyer working within the Afghan justice system is certainly an unusual selling point for the story. In the end, it really is a film largely about her, as it contrasts her work in Afghanistan with her family life back home in the USA, and increasingly is about the challenges she faces juggling these commitments. She’s no social justice warrior, or someone out to make a point about US involvement in the Middle East — though there’s an unintended irony about security as her husband’s own story takes a shocking turn — she just needs to make money to support her family life. Indeed, one gets the sense that this is a defining story of a generation, looking for opportunities and seizing upon them despite the risks. These risks start to overwhelm her story towards the end, though Motley remains indefatigable in the face of them, even as the Danish documentarians who’ve made the film are seen becoming increasingly fearful.

Motley's Law film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nicole N. Horanyi; Cinematographer Henrik Bohn Ipsen; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 12 April 2016.