(Credit: NFB)

The Forbidden Reel: History that was nearly erased

Beginning with a premiere in Amsterdam and a London screening on February 21, The Forbidden Reel, a documentary co-produced by Loaded Pictures and the National Film Board of Canada, will become available for public showings. Director Ariel Nasr presents the astonishing story of the Afghani film industry and the promising filmmakers it produced; how their work was cut short by repressive censorship; and the development of a determined, clandestine network dedicated to protecting Aghanistan’s film archives. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, a small group of Afghani filmmakers, working under challenging conditions, began to develop a distinctive Afghani national cinema. The rise of the Taliban not only put an end to this process, but threatened the archives of already completed films, demanding that all stored films be located and destroyed, along with a wide range of documents, monuments, and artwork deemed incompatible with the new regime. A hastily organised underground effort, aided by foreign cinephiles, attempted to preserve these films, either hiding them or smuggling them out of the country before they could be burned. 

The Forbidden Reel gives an account of the difficult and dangerous effort to preserve Afghanistan’s fledgeling cinematic legacy. In the process, director Nasr also gives an overview of the nation’s turbulent history over recent decades, including the rise of a resistance movement; and provides glimpses of the cinematic works that had been successfully rescued.

The film alternates between selected scenes from the threatened Afghani films, most of them previously unknown to most Western viewers; and firsthand testimony from former filmmakers and activists. Adding to the documentary’s background are interviews with Latif Ahmadi, one of the founders of Afghan Film; Siddiq Barmak, director of the Golden Globe-winning 2004 drama Osama; and popular actress and feminist icon Yasmin Yarmal.

Nasr is currently working with the National Film Board of Canada to digitise and preserve the Afghani films, as well as restoring rescued films which had been damaged, and are attempting to extend their mandate by inviting the participation of other countries—essential, in view of the high cost of the preservation work. The NFB is also preparing an interactive site for The Forbidden Reel.

The NFB’s commissioner praised the bravery of the effort to preserve this material, commenting: “Afghanistan has a remarkably rich and diverse national cinema. The vision and courage that have gone into safeguarding this legacy is really something historic in the annals of film preservation, and the NFB is honoured to be part of it—doing whatever we can to assist our Afghan colleagues in taking the next steps to preserve and share their nation’s priceless audiovisual legacy.” 

The Forbidden Reel (Trailer 90 sec.) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

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