Afghan women break barriers in film-making

Shahrbanoo Sadat was announced as the youngest filmmaker ever selected for a Cannes Festival award this week. Sadat’s film, ‘Wolf and Sheep,’ won Art CinemWOlf and Sheepa Award at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section in the globally acclaimed festival. Her accomplishment has made our entire nation proud and given hope to other Afghan women across the country. Coming from a country where women continue to be deprived of basic human rights, it was inspiring that Sadat’s film competed with films made by great director such as Paul Joseph SchraderAlejandro Jodorowsky and Marco Bellocchio writes Awesta Telyar Azada

While Sadat’s film has been praised for beautiful storytelling, her accomplishment itself is a beautiful story.

Despite the decades of war and violence, which have had the deadliest impact on women, it is awe-inspiring that Sadat is rising as a powerful woman with a can-do attitude shinning not only in national level but also internationally. Born in Iran as a refugee, Sadat returned to Afghanistan with her family after the collapse of the Taliban in 2001. Sadat’s family lived in Bamyan province where she went to school and spent her teenage years. She moved to Kabul after a few years to study film at the university level and start her career in filmmaking.

A different side of Afghanistan

‘Wolf and Sheep’ is inspired by Sadat’s life and day-to-day experiences in a remote village in central part of Afghanistan. The village depicted in the film is a place far from war and violence, a spot where not much happens and where everyone knows everyone else’s business and discusses it endlessly. The film successfully displays an image of Afghanistan that is not familiar to many outside- one where normal life exists despite war.

The film offers a counter narrative to the predominantly negative portrayal of Afghanistan in Western media. While people outside the country know it only as war zone bursting with terrorist training hubs, there is much more to Afghanistan. In a society where war and terrorism is part of everyday life for many, cinema and the arts in general can play a massive role in bringing hope, change and normalcy in the society and Afghan women filmmakers are aware of this. The country is currently experience a golden age for its cinema and arts in general. Sadat one of the many woman filmmakers using film as a tool for change inside and outside the country. Earlier this year, Sahraa Karimi won Best Film Award at the Dhaka International Film Festival for her film, “Afghan Women behind Driving Wheel.” Alka Sadat, Mary Ayubi, Nelofer Pazira, Saba Sahar and many others have worked tirelessly to change Afghan cinema in the last decade.

Despite progress challenges remain

Though ‘Wolf and Sheep’ focuses on a peaceful narrative, the film’s production was impacted by the war nevertheless. Due to security concerns, Sadat’s film was shot in the dusty mountains of Tajikistan. It took two months to build a village and bring 38 Hazaragi-speaking villagers, adults and children to play versions of themselves.

The difficulties in filming ‘Wolf and Sheep’ mirror the challenges Afghan filmmakers and artists have ahead of them. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is restrictive cultural norms that view women’s participation in society and in media as a sign of promiscuity and keep women in isolation and darkness in a male dominate society. Another major challenge is lack of literacy. Only 12% of womencan read and write and even fewer have access to higher education to pursue filmmaking or any other field. Women who do have the chance to seek education face discrimination and harassment on the street and at workplaces.

Perhaps it is these obstacles that make the accomplishments of Sadat and her peers even more significant. Despite the difficulties and restrictions they face, Afghan women have always been and continue to break barriers and move the country forward. As one film director, Saba Sahar proclaimed in an interview, “Afghan women are capable of doing anything men do.”

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