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Preserving cultural histories through archives: the case of Afghan film heritage

As part of the public lecture series This is Film! Film Heritage in Practice, devoted to remarkable projects in archival film re-use, Eye will host the filmmaker Ariel Nasr and screen his film The Forbidden Reel on 21 April 2021. Giovanna Fossati, Chief Curator at Eye and Professor Film Heritage at UvA, will talk with this special guest about the once hidden and forbidden treasures of Afghan film heritage.

As the foremost film institution in Afghanistan, Afghan Film has been instrumental in creating and archiving some of the most important works of cinema. The history of Afghan Film, however, has been studded by civil unrest and political strife, and encountered one of its most pronounced threats when Taliban militants threatened to destroy the archives, thereby erasing the nation’s cultural history on film. Through a dramatic turn of events, these films were preserved, retaining the image of a nation that at times feels unrecognizable to its present-day form. Ariel Nasr’s latest film, The Forbidden Reel, unearths the work of some of the most important filmmakers and actors in Afghan Film’s history.

In this interview, Ariel Nasr shares some of his thoughts on the importance of preserving film archives, free access, and amateur filmmaking, and reflects on his own role as a filmmaker.

Portrait of Ariel Nasr
Ariel Nasr

The guardians of cinema

Jamil: Your film, The Forbidden Reel, is particularly interesting in the ways in which it intersects Western media archival practices with the traditional practices of Afghan Film. There is, however, a traditional language of Western media archivists who are often wrapped up in the paradigm of saving the world’s audiovisual heritage. I wanted to ask you how you felt about this idea of “saving” the works of other nation’s cinema, and more specifically how you understand your role as part of this archival tradition?

Ariel: That’s an interesting question. One of the things that I realized in making this film – which wasn’t necessarily a surprise – is that the aspirations and goals of the institutions and the government are not necessarily the same as the filmmakers even though they are working within a public institution. I’m supportive of government and institutions, but I ask myself, “who do I want to help the most?” And that would always come down to the Afghan filmmakers who I really want to be an ally to. I deeply felt that I was somehow part of their lineage! As a cousin, not a direct line, not a child. But somehow as a cousin of that tradition because there’s a tradition in Afghanistan of filmmakers who trained each other, who did a lot of their own self-teaching, who developed their own techniques. And it’s not on a technical level; it’s on a level that’s really important especially for documentary filmmakers. It’s about intention; what is the intention of the author? That’s the crucial thing.

Filmmakers of Afghan Film, like Siddiq Barmak for instance, document the history that’s unfolding around them, and they do so in a way that champions culture, and mourns the loss of culture on an equal footing to the loss of life. I think that they saw themselves as kind of guardians of culture and part of that was documenting their country and the history that was going on around them. And I definitely identify with part of that. That’s sort of why I stayed in Afghanistan. I just wanted to document this history as it was unfolding from a perspective that had the intention of preserving this culture for other Afghans.

Jamil: I really like how you describe these filmmakers as “guardians” and see yourself as connected to their lineage. But I wonder how this question of safeguarding films becomes more complicated when they are found and “saved” by a filmmaker who is not linked to that national or cultural identity in the same way that you are. What kinds of problems do you think can potentially arise when you have filmmakers who perhaps don’t share the same intentions as the original filmmakers?

Ariel: I think it can still be good, but I think it depends on the person. I don’t think that Afghan heritage is a guarantee of good intention. I have met historians of Afghanistan who are really great, who have no biological link to Afghanistan and who didn’t grow up there or anything. I think that it really depends on somebody’s intention, and I think good can still be done. I don’t want to say what kind of good is the best kind of good – it starts to get a bit sententious or judgmental – but I think a lot of the time people can position a project as “heroic” as a way to gain support for it. And that project can be more photogenic and therefore gain more support. It can be easier to tell the story of a project like that. The Boxing Girls of Kabul is kind of like that in a way. I hope that through the documentary I showed that it was complicated for the women, that they felt at times “used”. One of the women even expressed that she felt like they were being “used” to bring back medals for the Olympic committee. Hopefully it was clear that there was a deeper use of them in the film that was more about positioning Afghanistan, the new government, as a kind of progressive place where these women could compete in boxing. I think the issue is that they move us away from talking about the really big harmful things that are happening politically.

Ariel Nasr filming
Ariel Nasr filming

Free access and pernicious use

Elliot: Filmmakers can often exercise power and control over archival images, and sometimes manipulate these images for pernicious ends, which can be hard to monitor, especially when these images become increasingly accessible to all kinds of people. Do you think there is a way to safeguard this kind of activity?

Ariel: I still think that free public access is a good thing. Of course there will always be malicious use of materials. But anything that’s out there can be used in various ways. And the more attention it attracts (which would be the goal in some ways) the more people will “troll” or parody or mock or use it to misinform, to reinterpret or create false interpretations of history, false narratives. But that’s normal, that's the risk that you take. I think it’s normal to have this kind of battle. And the answer is not to restrict information but it’s to fight. To fight by creating, by creating your own good work, your own weapons.

A lot of Afghan film was propaganda when it was made. Not all of it. Some of it was propaganda. So its history also isn't pristine. There’s no way or no need to keep things pure or to try to restrict bad media. I think bad media is just part of the world. It’s not up to authorities or governments or lawmakers to restrict it except in the worst cases. I just think there’s more good voices than bad voices.

“There’s no way or no need to keep things pure or to try to restrict bad media. I think bad media is just part of the world. It’s not up to authorities or governments or lawmakers to restrict it except in the worst cases.”

Ariel Nasr

I used to love watching viral videos, because sometimes they’re so unexpected and so strange. The viral videos of the early 2000s were so amazing! The double rainbow, or whatever that was. It doesn’t happen as much anymore. It was like having a million monkeys on a million typewriters, and something brilliant would rise up, just by people paying attention to it. I think that is what we have now. If you give your attention to things that you want to see, your attention becomes a kind of currency, which then creates the possibility for more of that kind of media. The media sphere reacts to attention. You pay attention to it, and it starts to rise.

From amateur to auteur cinema

Jamil: I also find those amateur films very strange and wonderful. How do you think things like home videos might factor into Afghanistan’s cinema history and help to revise the Western viewpoint? Is the Afghan Film Archive cataloguing those films in any kind of way?

Ariel: No, they’re not. And I think there’s really important work to be done. And I thought of doing something myself. I want to do something about wedding videos, because I find wedding videos really fascinating. That would be amazing. But, you know, it’s not worth it unless there’s somebody who is willing to just start doing the work, doing it either as part of their PhD thesis, or something like that. That’s the problem… But imagine! The thing is, the only way we’re going to know how Afghan people danced in the 20th century is through those wedding videos! Because of my exposure to Afghan culture and my Afghan heritage, I have a different perspective on wedding videos than most people. I notice that when I talk to people about this project they start to look really sleepy, but wedding videos in Afghanistan are kind of like public access TV. You go to a relative’s house and you sit down and they bring tea and if you stay for more than 10 minutes they put on a wedding video. And then the video plays while you chat, and every now and then, they say, “That’s your second cousin, that’s your uncle, you know him right?” So it’s like pulling out the family photo album. You see people interacting. That’s one of the ways that people keep track of 150-200 family relationships. And then of course there’s a bunch of rituals that are important, and they're important in part because of the documentation of them. So, a wedding is partly a film production, because certain things are staged in certain ways so that you can document them, so that you can watch them again and again. Wedding videography is very much professionalized as an industry, but it's a very different genre of film that I find interesting. But to get outside of just personal interest, you would have to draw from a huge number of sources. I would love to do that.

As a 'Halfghan' filmmaker

Elliot: In an interview in the Mediapolis journal, Fragmented Memory, you describe yourself as a Halfghan — “neither Western nor Eastern, but both at once.” Do you believe your identity allows you to approach some of this politically charged material with a unique kind of distance or sensitivity or stoicism that is distinct from Afghan filmmakers who live and work in Afghanistan?

Ariel: Yes, my answer is yes. I don’t know how exactly, because I don’t want to talk about other people’s experiences, as there’s a whole range of experiences but I do feel that I am particularly well-placed to be someone who can make work that is less political. I didn’t want to make the film that said this is the big crime that is being committed and you have to do something about it, because the more time I spent with it the less I became sure of anything. One thing I knew that films could do was to put people in a room with Afghan participants that are on the screen and living their lives or telling their story and that can create a further sense of complexity that can dispel oversimplifications and misinformation, as well as create empathy, which is the whole point of this and the main goal of my work. Where I try to create empathy, I tend to steer away from politics. As a ‘Halfghan’, a sort of insider, I know how to not lie, you can’t not lie in your work if you don’t know. My films do cleave very closely to reality, while being somewhat engaging.

Elliot: To tell such a complicated history of Afghanistan you must cleave very closely to reality, as you say, is the documentary form for The Forbidden Reel therefore the most necessary form for platforming these ‘insider’ voices to narrate the complex and personal history of Afghanistan?

Ariel: Documentary is a really good platform for telling stories that wouldn’t otherwise be told, it is a form of activism. It allows for other voices. It allows for more diversity. It allows for a diversity of perspectives. It allows for more truth to power. There are all kinds of mechanisms in fiction filmmaking that make it harder to do those things. Of course, you can make films about things that are totally mundane as well. So I feel like documentary is more powerful in that way.

“Documentary is a really good platform for telling stories that wouldn’t otherwise be told, it is a form of activism. It allows for other voices. It allows for more diversity.”

Ariel Nasr

Ariel: By providing a platform for these ‘insider voices’, you’re not necessarily satisfying the audience and their established preconceptions of this subject matter. I think it’s more challenging to do this because you’re satisfying a bigger need, the bigger need of those who are being perceived. You’re working for the participants more than you’re working for the audience. So the audience sometimes gets way less satisfied, than if you were to wrap things up simply for them. But, otherwise, you can fall into one of two things. You can either be just reinforcing preconceptions. And if you look at media, contemporary media, popular films, often the most virulent stereotypes are acted out onscreen. And it’s sort of like the most regressive part of our society. I mean this is stuff that would never pass in a conversation or in an academic setting. You see in popular movies on screen often are being acted out and it's like a haven for regressive attitudes–Hollywood filmmaking especially. And that’s one thing that you can fall into, even with documentary.

The other thing is to preach to the choir, to create something that so clearly satisfies the objectives of the kind of mainstream of the alternative, the mainstream of leftist thinking, that you can’t fail to have a certain audience. Those films are useful too, they’re useful for mobilizing people and engaging people around issues who already are likely to be engaged around those issues. But that’s also not quite what I do. Otherwise, I would make anti-war films. But what I do is try to complicate something, a preconception.

Jamil: How do you see your position then as a mediator of the discussion, rather than trying to answer these big questions?

Ariel: I think some documentaries are about simplifying things, like, to explain them. My documentaries are about complicating things. So, I try to complicate instead of simplify. And I do that because I think that often we need a reset, because there are so many hardened preconceptions about a thing. My work is more to disrupt that. And I think it’s more challenging to do that, because you’re not satisfying a core need of somebody. I try to destabilize rather than stabilize the viewer.

Elliot: At the end of the film there is a quote: “in the archive you can seal off these histories”, when speaking about difficult subjects that are too close to the current time like the Taliban years. Can you speak to this more and do you believe that this almost time-capsule censorship is a good approach to these subjects?

Ariel: I think it is a really interesting quote and I loved that Mariam Ghani said that because it does talk about the value of an archive, but I think to some extent it’s a kind of incidental value that is inherent of archives as they preserve stuff, they keep stuff but at the same time the fact those things can’t be viewed that’s always going to be political. Whether or not they are viewed, you’re never going to be able to get everything out of an archive into the open, there’s too much, so it does serve that function. I thought that quote was good enough to end the film on. But I think what she’s referring to, is not something that is very easy to describe, which is that there were parts of the war, like I explained previously, that involved people who are currently in power and that, I don’t want to reduce her comments to this but this is an aspect of it that is more concrete that I can speak to in terms of the archive that I can speak to, there are elements of the archive that show either war crimes or the exhumation of corpses that were victims of war crimes that implicates people and something that’s never happened in Afghanistan is justice for all of this stuff. So there has been this kind of rush to cover that up and pick the most convenient faction that had enough power to come into power and had a certain legitimacy that put them in power, so because of the approach to not say that we need to have this huge process of reconciliation and justice and look at who committed war crimes in the past, there is now this situation where you have people in government who were really known to be rapists, murderers, and these are known crimes they are not secrets, they are documented many of them. Some of the most powerful people including most famously Rashid Dostum, who was the Vice president for many years, he is a really notorious war criminal. And so there is sort of blanket of forgiveness for people. So that is the really sensitive period of the civil war, but I think she is talking more generally and philosophically as well but the Taliban period is not at all present in the archive, it is just present there, there’s nothing to show other than through the stories.

For those who are interested in exploring audio/visual works from the Middle East further, we encourage you to attend the Unfolding Layers series of discussions, which explores the curiosities that are provoked by the works in the Trembling Landscapes exhibition on display at Eye until 3 January 2021. With a particular focus on the Middle East, these conversations and screenings will explore a variety of audio-visual media that each approach its subject with uniquely different entry points in order to better grasp the colonial histories, orientalist imaginings, and violent or catastrophic depictions that are often entangled with these landscapes. In collaboration with the Salwa Foundation.