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(Credit: Sahraa Karimi Twitter)

Film

Far Out Meets: Sahraa Karimi, the Afghan film director that escaped the Taliban

Afghan filmmaker Sahraa Karimi is well known to film lovers around the world, not only for her creative output but for some of her singular achievements in the face of obstacles. She was the first – and so far only – woman in Afghanistan to have a PhD in cinema, as well as the first woman to serve as general director of the national organisation Afghan Film. Her critically acclaimed first feature film, Hava, Maryam, Ayesha, was shot entirely in Kabul using Afghan actors. 

Karimi gained considerable public attention in August when, just prior to successfully fleeing Afghanistan with her family, she published an open letter to the international film community, calling on them to protect filmmakers and writers from Taliban violence. The letter, published under the letterhead of Afghan Films, described the horrors already taking place under the newly reestablished Taliban, calling it “a humanitarian crisis.” 

It said, in part: “Everything that I have worked so hard to build as a filmmaker in my country is at risk of falling. If the Taliban take over they will ban all art. I and other filmmakers could be next on their hit list. They will strip women’s rights, we will be pushed into the shadows of our homes; and our voices, our expression will be stifled into silence. Please help us get this world to care about what is happening to us. Please help us by informing your countries’ most important media of what is going on here in Afghanistan. Be our voices outside Afghanistan.”

Although not presenting a film at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, the event organisers felt her voice should be added, particularly in view of recent events. Karimi was invited to take part in a conference as part of TIFF’s Share Her Journey initiative in support of women in film. During the talk, she was interviewed by Afghani-Canadian filmmaker Tarique Qayumi, who introduced the conversation with highlights of Karimi’s career, commenting that her first feature was “the best film I’ve seen come out of Afghanistan,” she said. Karimi replied: “Thank you for supporting Afghan filmmakers and for supporting us to use our voice. I think this is a very important time to talk about Afghanistan, to talk about Afghan artists and filmmakers, because I believe that film and cinema are like a door to introduce the histories of a nation. We shouldn’t let this door be closed.”

The interview quickly moved on to the most obvious subject: Karimi’s flight from the country as the US left Kabul and the Taliban began reclaiming power. She was asked to set the scene and replied, showing as much concern for the creative work she and her colleagues were trying to complete as for the danger of the regime change in Afghanistan – perhaps to be expected in this very dedicated creative individual. 

“My team and I, in Afghan Film, were so busy the past few months,” Karimi began. “I had developed a programme for five years of Afghan cinema. We were preparing for the next year; we had trouble getting a budget from the Ministry of Finance, but we wanted to move on to the second year of this programme. So we were busy; we could not just avoid news, avoid reality, but I was very confident that our army, our government, would support us. 

“There was a lot of talk about not letting the Taliban come to Kabul, that we won’t let them take over the big cities, so I was very confident,” she contiued. “But there was fear among the people. In the past months, we’d had difficult times. There were explosions, many car explosions – at Afghan film, they killed two of my very young employees, just three months ago, in car explosions, and it had a very bad effect on our motivation. 

“Still, we wanted to continue because we believe that creating film… we were preparing for international film festivals, national film awards. We premiered two short films, and we were in post-production of eleven short and documentary films. We were opening a new cinema, preparing for the production of two future films, so there was lots of fear, lots of working hard, creating, everything all together. So we were so busy, we didn’t quite see what was happening to us, you know?”.

Karimi was asked at what point she began to realise that things had reached a turning point, that the Taliban were actually coming. She recalls: “For me, it was a Friday, August 13th, when I started to think this would be something. I decided to write an open letter to the film company. I had talked with the Minister, and he said, no, there’s no need. On Friday, we read the news and we began to think the Taliban would take major cities. I wrote and shared a letter and asked filmmaker friends to share it as much as they could.”

The overall mood in Kabul, Karimi says, was mixed as the US first began their withdrawal. “There were a few days of huge traffic; people were so afraid, but we still thought there was hope, because maybe they were negotiating. I thought that some deal would happen,” she explained.

She described going on about her business, doing ordinary things. It was while she made a stop at her bank one morning that the situation became unavoidable: “The turning point for me was when the manager of my bank came and said, the Taliban are in the city. It was like a movie; his eyes were full of tears, he was afraid. He said I should just go home. I said, but I didn’t take any money; but he said, no, we’re just going to close. I was just thinking, ‘OK, what should I do? Should I run?’ That’s a normal reaction, when you see all this…When I went out, I saw a guy with a flag, people so confused…so I just ran. 

“You just think of close people at this moment. I thought about my brother and his five daughters. So I was thinking, ‘what if they catch me? What if they send me to prison?’. The circumstances will follow them. It was like being put under cold water. Everyone was confused. Some people were running, some just standing and gazing, some laughing…it was a very strange situation”.

Sahraa Karimi, director and activist. (Credit: Alamy)

Asked how she managed to escape Afghanistan when so many failed to get out, Karimi described her experience of the next few days, from her own perspective. She was oddly undecided at first. “Suddenly, I had to decide what to do. I wanted to stay in Afghanistan; I thought, ‘should I stay or should I leave?'”. She soon realised that flight was the only option:

“My main thought as I was running to the airport was my brother’s daughters. I didn’t think about my job, my position, but I didn’t want anything to happen to them. They’re young and full of dreams, and they didn’t know anything about the Taliban. I phoned my brother and asked, ‘where are your daughters?’”. They were in school; she told her brother to gather the girls and run to the airport immediately.

Setting aside any hope that the trouble would be resolved, Karimi reached out to some of her film industry contacts for assistance. “I called friends; because I’m a member of Slovac Film and TV, I called the president of SFTV, and she told me there’s a Ukrainian flight that can take me, so at least I can get out of the country. We got there, and our name was on a list, we went through check in. There were hundreds of people waiting.”

As she waited, the rapid success of the Taliban was becoming clear through online news reports and social media. The Taliban shared a photo of themselves, taking over the president’s residence. “The Taliban entered the city and took over the palace,” Karimi continued. “People kept coming, coming, coming. We couldn’t manage to take that flight, so all night we kept trying to get on some flight. We were told that it was better to stay in the airport because the Taliban were just outside. It was 2pm when I started to run to the airport, and still many people didn’t yet know what was going on.” 

Trying to describe the mood of the place, Karimi typically resorted to film references. “There’s a commercial film called Train to Busan, where zombies are coming, and you’re running. It was somehow like that. Then the Americans started to push us out, because there were thousands of people trying to get to planes. Finally, after calling Slovakia, calling Ukraine, calling others, we managed, after more than 40 hours, to get a flight. I was told there’s a Ukrainian flight I can get that can take me to Ukraine, so at least I can get out of the country. There were still hundreds of people waiting.”

It was at this point that those waiting in the airport heard official announcements that the Taliban had taken Kabul, that the president had left Afghanistan, and the situation “totally changed. All the employees of the airport just left, it was open, and people still just kept coming and coming”. Americans still present at the airport began to try to push out people attempting to board an American plane. Despite the uncertain wait of over 40 hours, Karimi allowed that she was fortunate in having valuable contacts outside the country: “My case was better than some, because they were closing the gates on others,” she said.

Karimi addressed the familiar news footage of individuals desperately hanging onto planes as they took off. “I saw with my own eyes, in the middle of the night, young boys hanging from a US cargo plane like it was the only hope they had. I saw women standing and crying”. She also, Karimi added, saw people taking advantage of the chaos to rob houses, clear food out of home freezers and such, but finds it understandable, “Everyone was just trying to stay alive,” she added.

“You know, when the Taliban took over Kabul, they opened all the prisons. So all the criminals – thieves, whatever they were in prison for – after many years, they had this opportunity to get out. They were also in shock about how they’d come out, you know? It wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t something that, if you think about it, you feel, ‘I’m a hero!’ No, it was all totally about trying to stay alive.”

The interviewer recalled his own feelings while living in Afghanistan: “Every night I’d think, ‘what if the Taliban comes to get me?’ It was a constant nightmare.” 

Karimi empathised with his feelings in this regard, replying: “I had this kind of feeling about three months ago. They had a list of women who were on a hit list; they were going to be killed. Because of that list, a lot of young, talented female journalists left Afganistan. I also got on a list.” She was advised to leave the country for a few weeks. “Then I came back. I was driving myself; I didn’t have a bodyguard, and my family just took my car key and said, ‘we won’t let you do this any more’”. She thereafter stopped driving to avoid negative attention, as well as keeping her face covered in public. “I tried all possible ways to get to work… but when they killed two of my employees – very, very young girls – I searched for their bodies all night. They were exploded in a car. That was a moment when I lost hope. This fear, that you sleep with and wake up with, I lived with it over the past six months.”

After her escape, Karimi says it took time to get over the experience. “I couldn’t, at first, resume a normal life. After some ten days, I was able to eat and sleep, maybe do interviews. I remember the Hollywood Reporter, in the middle of the interview, I was…somewhere else; but he understood. He told me, ‘I think you’re not quite here’. One day I told myself, OK, you want to be full of anger, to cry? You want to carry this anger, this grieving, in yourself? No! You should go back to writing.” Karimi told herself to use her feelings and record them, telling herself, ‘write what you saw.’ A surprising outcome of all this was her decision to make a film based on her own experiences during the Taliban takeover.

A scene from Karimi’s 2019 film Hava, Maryam, Ayesha. (Credit: Alamy)

Karimi contacted the Slovakian Film Society, and a scriptwriter she knew in Italy, and told them of her intentions to put her experiences into a film. “We formed a team. I finished the synopsis, and we’re going to finish the first version of the script in the next month or two.” The story was ready; they just needed to find the structure. “We’ll finish the first draft in the next month. The title is Flight From Kabul.”

“I think it’s important to tell this story,” she muses. “Yes, it’s my story, but it could be hundreds of other stories, too.”

Along with the pre-production of Flight From Kabul, Karimi has found herself in demand, both in teaching positions and for interviews. “I’m going to teach at a film school in Italy this year. I’m trying to start a new life, a new journey. I’m very sad, of course; any time there’s a period when I’m totally alone, immediately my mind goes back to Kabul.” She describes her work in Kabul as a constant struggle, “always fighting with everybody, trying to convince everybody” to support or fund her work; but, she adds, every victory meant a celebration for her and her colleagues. She says she misses working there, misses the people she knew, and the inspiration they provided. She hopes to put her experiences of the past nine years in Afghanistan into the upcoming movie somehow. 

Karimi was asked whether she thinks she’ll ever go back to Afghanistan. She explained that her position, her very existence, is in a grey area in that country at present. “Some of my friends stayed in Afghanistan,” she noted. “I ask myself, can I find a way to go back? The Ministry of Information and Culture, they didn’t tell me anything. They didn’t tell me you’re no longer head of Afghan Film or anything.” Out of curiosity, she wrote to the Ministry on several occasions, asking their opinion as to whether she should come back. “They didn’t decide. I was told,” she laughs, “You’re still an employee of Afghan Film – but you should stay away!” The Taliban still will not confirm nor deny her position as director of Afghan Film. “Maybe they were afraid I’d make trouble,” she suggests.

She points out that her former colleagues who remained in Afghanistan have all taken care to change their appearance: no shaving for men, covering oneself completely if female, and so forth. At her own home, most of her possessions remain as they had been. She describes rushing to leave, not even taking the time to pack belongings, beyond essential paperwork. “I didn’t even have time to collect most of my personal things. My house is there, my car is there, my paintings and books and films are there; and the key is here with me.”

An obvious question: what does she expect from the future? Karimi doesn’t hope for much from Afghanistan in the foreseeable future. “It’s not a very bright future for a young, talented generation, but I believe that we shouldn’t be silent; we shouldn’t just look at [the Taliban] and see what they will do. As filmmakers, we should raise our voice and not recognise the Taliban.”

Karimi strongly believes that artists can have an impact. “Filmmakers are not political; we are connected to people. We can use our voice for humanity. I think saving Afghanistan is an act of humanity.” She says that the common idea is that the main kind of support to be offered in this case is financial, but it’s not. She feels we need to continue to recognise and speak about the achievements made by Afghans in the past 20 years, including women. We shouldn’t, she insists, let the Taliban, or any other “terrorist group”, become leaders of Afghanistan and “take away our achievements.” Despite that, she remains optimistic about the possibilities: “Young artists hoped to change and renew Afghanistan; to tell women’s stories. If other countries recognise the Taliban as a real government, our future will be destroyed.” If instead they refuse to acknowledge the Taliban as a legitimate government, if they push the Taliban to recognise human rights, women’s rights, artists’ rights, and to establish some democratic values, “then there is hope, the future is not so bleak”.

The interview moved on to Karimi’s work, particularly her well-received first feature. She acknowledges the film’s importance to Afghan culture, noting that Hava, Maryam, Ayesha was the first Afghani independent production in around 20 years because most films were made as co-productions with other countries. While co-writing the script, she realised that she might not get support from production companies for the project, as they might not be interested in her main character’s story, about a modern Afghani woman. While creating the script and simultaneously working for UNICEF, she began the film independently and without much financial backing, apart from donations from friends and family. “Making a film in Afghanistan, because of equipment insurance and so forth, is a big problem,” she said. Because of equipment limitations and film equipment sources that refused to ship to Afghanistan, her first feature was filmed in the country, but post-production was done in Iran. “There were a lot of difficulties,” she admits, adding casually: “Plus, during filming there were four major explosions. So there was fear, lots of equipment limitations, financial limitations…but I wanted so much to do it”.

Karimi speaks nostalgically of gathering material and inspiration from the people and places of Afghanistan. “My style of filmmaking is based on my own observations. I take things from the surrounding society. I had an opportunity to travel around Afghanistan, especially the south. Not everybody can travel there, especially women. I recorded people’s stories, especially women’s stories.” She visited many sites in Afghanistan where it was all but impossible for a woman to travel and where lives are very circumscribed; here, she gathered material for future projects.

The film’s premiere was in 2019, and it was shown internationally, “But for me, the most important part was that we screened the film for twenty days within Afghanistan”.

The interviewer mentioned how memorable her first film was, particularly the ending. Karimi offered, “My way of writing, I always think about the ending of a film”. She described how she plans out the plot of a film, focusing on the ending. For the upcoming Flight From Kabul, she already knows what the ending will look like. She added, with some pride, that only one of the women in Hava, Maryam, Ayesha was a professional actress. The other lead roles, and all the bit parts, were played by non-professionals. 

What was the reaction of the Afghani public to a film dealing with women’s lives? Karimi says that, for the most part, women loved the film, men did not care for it. “Still,” she allows, “Whenever we screened the film, the theatre was full. It was widely advertised; they screened it everywhere; there were social media debates about it; critics strongly disagreed. For me, that was a wonderful feeling. The first time I saw a billboard for my film, I cried.”

Asked how she managed to get away with certain scenes that would be considered risqué in Afghanistan – such as a scene in which a woman takes a shower, shown only above the shoulders but with her hair exposed – and the fact that women were shown without a head covering in many indoor scenes, Karimi replied that she, first of all, had to convince the actors to go along: “This is one advantage to being a female film director”.

She was also concerned about the film’s realism, explaining: “I didn’t want to show a woman in the house with a scarf, because in Afghanistan we don’t wear it inside our own home. Before the Taliban came, they didn’t even wear one on the street. I didn’t want it to be fake.” She added that one actress didn’t want to be shown in the shower, but Karimi convinced her it was about the character, not the actress personally, and won her over. In the end, to the director’s surprise, even the shower scene was not cut from the film. 

What was the reaction of audiences to the shower scene? Karimi demonstrates the typical response with an exclamation of shock. The next question: What message would you want to give to younger Afghan filmmakers? “Everything is about telling stories,” she replied almost instantly. “A filmmaker who can visually tell a story in Afghanistan can tell a story everywhere”. She advised Afghan artists not to give up their dreams “even when life is not kind. We lost everything: our dreams, our work, our families. But if you are still imagining, and still dreaming, you’re still alive. If you’re a storyteller, a new situation means new possibilities, new stories.” Karimi remains hopeful about the survival of her own art form: “Seeing things from a different angle means not letting Afghan cinema die.” Although, she says, we can’t go back to our country, we can still keep Afghan cinema alive, from abroad. 

Asked to comment on film as a means of social change, Karimi replied: “Cinema is very important. One of the biggest mistakes of the past 20 years that the Afghan government made is not to support the arts in Afghanistan. They didn’t support filmmakers or provide financial support for the arts. Their talent was wasted. If we’d had real cinema, a government supported film industry, we might not be in this situation right now.” 

Interviewer Tarique Qayumi agreed on this point, mentioning that while he lived in Afghanistan, most television content was Turkish or from another foreign source. He considers not promoting actual Afghan content was a big missed opportunity, commenting: “If you don’t give people a chance to tell their own stories, how can they understand one another?”. Karimi agreed, “This is the biggest missed opportunity, not supporting cinema, and artists in general,” adding that being together at a cinema, watching the same film together, is a kind of act of togetherness, or solidarity, that unifies people. “You get together under one roof and watch one film, together. Somebody likes it, somebody else doesn’t like it… it didn’t happen enough in the last eighteen years or so. We started to bring changes, but unfortunately, they didn’t let us continue our work”.

Currently, producers of Karimi’s first film are negotiating with streaming services to make the film available to international audiences. It also screened at some 38 film festivals. “People should watch films from Afghanistan and the middle east,” Karimi suggests, “Because it’s the only way, nowadays, we can tell about our situation and our culture. The only way we can tell our stories nowadays is through cinema. Watch films from my region; it’s very important that you know us.” For this reason, she describes events like TIFF “an important and significant platform for filmmakers.” 

“Cinema,” she says, “Also brings a kind of responsibility to our society, that we shouldn’t be silent. We all live under one roof – which is the sky. The world shouldn’t be silent about the Afghan situation”.

How will she film Flight From Kabul, set in Afghanistan, if she can’t go back there? “This film won’t be made in Afghanistan,” she agrees. “If a miracle happened and the Taliban disappeared… but maybe I can make it in a country similar to Afghanistan.” She seriously added that there are Afghan expatriates who will want to work in a film like this, and she invites them to participate. 

Pointing out that Karimi is active on Twitter, for those who would like to keep track of her ongoing work, the interviewer offered her the final word. She concluded, “Please don’t be silent about the situation in Afghanistan, and about cinema in Afghanistan. Take a few seconds to include the hashtag #DoNotRecogniseTaliban. Using this will help us to make films in the future.”