The story of an Afghan director


Afghan director Salim Shaheen was in the spotlight four years ago in Cannes, but now he spends his days confined to his home, frightened by the new Taliban regime and their crackdown on the arts and music.

Prolific and exuberant, Shaheen often speaks in third person or as developed on-screen characters in his 125 super-low budget films. A mention of his moment in the Cannes spotlight arouses particular delight.

“It was the happiest day of my life!” Shaheen screams from his home in Kabul. “All the French knew me.

They were shouting, “Shaheen! Shaheen! ‘ The film presented at Cannes was a documentary called “The Prince of Nothingwood”, produced by journalist Sonia Kronlund, who followed Shaheen as he made his 111th film.

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The 56-year-old man still relishes the memory of the long standing ovation he received after the press screening of the documentary in Cannes. But it all seems a long way off now, and while he received no direct threats from the Taliban, he now lives in fear of the die-hard Islamists who returned to power in mid-August after a two-decade insurgency.

“I’m afraid,” he admits, momentarily abandoning his theatrical character. “I’m not an ordinary guy who goes out on the streets. I am Salim Shaheen.

Shaheen fled to Pakistan during the first brutal Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, when film and television were banned and the arts severely restricted.

The new Afghan government has promised a looser rule this time around – television has so far been allowed but with heavy restrictions on content, while the few cinemas in the country have closed mostly due to the worsening financial crisis. But restrictions on dancing, music and singing were imposed in different ways from province to province.

Cinema is dead in Afghanistan

When the Taliban arrived unopposed in Kabul on August 15 during the collapse of the Western-backed regime, Shaheen burned dozens of posters of his films, keeping only two in an otherwise bare room.

He attempted to leave the country later in the month and says he was on a list of people accepted by France.

“I had to leave on the day of the explosion at the airport,” Shaheen said, referring to an August 26 suicide bombing by an Islamic State-affiliated group that killed more than 100 people .

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He was in a vehicle at the airport when the explosion took place, and “we got a message telling us to get out of the area,” he explains.

He has since locked himself in his home, along with 12 other members of his family who were also due to be evacuated. “All the actors and actresses in my films are currently in France… I want to go somewhere where I can resume my art and my cinema,” he says.

His films focus on social issues, including violence against women, crime and drugs, subjects not to the liking of the Taliban.

Taking inspiration from Bollywood, it flirts with all major genres – drama, comedy, police action – while song and dance are also integral parts.

His exaggerated style is not always appreciated by educated Afghans, but he is very popular among ordinary people – many in Kabul smile at the mere mention of his name.

The Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has made it clear that films which it believes go against Islamic and Afghan culture are not allowed.

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In mid-November, he also issued a religious directive urging Afghan television stations to stop broadcasting dramas featuring women. A ministry spokesperson told AFP he did not know Shaheen or his job.

The filmmaker has just finished editing his last three projects, but does not know if they will ever reach the public. “Cinema is dead in Afghanistan – and Salim Shaheen died with that too!”

AFP with additional contribution from GVS News Desk


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