Why I Risked My Life Making a Movie in Afghanistan

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Having left Afghanistan as a refugee in 1983, Tarique Qayumi worked on a secret project when he returned to Kabul from 2011 to 2015. While working for a TV station there, he and his wife Tajana Prka collaborated on the feature film Black Kite, a family drama about a kite maker who risks everything to follow his passion and share it with his young daughter, even after the Taliban banned kite flying under penalty of death. The fate of the film was left up in the air after a Taliban bombing nearly claimed the life of one of its stars, Leena Alam.

The Taliban were bombing everyday. They said they were going to do this as a show of force. Working in Afghanistan, I learned that there are no problems, only solutions—Because there will constantly be problems. That’s just the way it is.

When that attack happened, Leena was sitting across from us telling a story; that was a moment when I definitely thought oh shit, this is it.

I thought: Maybe this is the point. This is a signal. That’s it. Stop. It was basically up to her. Of course, it would have been easy to give up at that point. We were physically and mentally tired. But it just gave us a burst of energy.

The return to Afghanistan in 2011 was exciting. I felt like I really wanted to reconnect with my roots. I’d grown up there, and I’d come to Canada as a refugee when I was a kid. I had these ideas of what it meant to be Afghan, and I was attracted to it. There were some pieces of my puzzle missing, and I felt like going back there was going to solve this for me. There was this yearning inside me.

I had just finished my masters. I studied filmmaking, and I got a job offer from this TV station, Tolo TV. It was a docudrama series called Truth Unveiled—Afghanistan’s first docudrama series. There are a lot of Turkish shows and, believe it or not, Korean shows that are dubbed there to the local language.

Then, my contract got extended. My wife, Tajana, who produced Black Kite, was also there with me. We made a kids talk show, and then they gave me Sesame Street, for Afghanistan, called Baghch-e-Simsim, which was one of the coolest things I’ve ever worked on. We’d go to a playground, and we’d be like, “we’re shooting Sesame Street” in a country where you’re not really in touch with women, and these mothers would come and grab us and they’d be like “I want my kid on that show!” I felt like a rockstar. I’ll probably never work on something that popular again. It’s quite a rush.

At the end of 2014, I felt like there was a lot happening. As soon as I arrived in the country, I started working. The creative mind needs time to reflect. Everything was happening too fast, and while I was there, I questioned: What part of me is Afghan? What part of me is Canadian? And I felt like this Canadian part was calling to me. I had this feeling that there are certain things that I can’t reconcile in Afghanistan. There are certain things that have to do with religion, that have to do with certain social elements of living there, that can’t be reconciled.

I would love to have a foot in both countries, but because of the ongoing war and the worsening situation, it wasn’t possible at the time. Once you’re there, there’s all this paranoia, and there are all these attacks. I wish I could go and come back—It’s a life-changing thing to go there.

We decided that this is it. We’re going to leave, although we love it here. It’s going to be hard but we’re going to leave, and then come back in the future. But Tajana was like, “look, we’re in the thick of it. You’re in the eye of the storm. Are you sure that you’re going to be able to come back to shoot something? The country’s changing rapidly. You shot all of this stuff for the TV station, but we really don’t have anything for ourselves.”

Because we work in Afghanistan, we know a lot of people, and we also know how things are done in Kabul. You kind of cobble stuff together. It’s not like here, where you go into projects prepared, and you have things lined up. Things just happen in Afghanistan, and you just put it all together. Actors are late, your camera will break, and you never have good sound. We knew these things, so we just went for it.

We improvised about 80 percent of our dialogue because a lot of Afghans can’t read or write.

We kept the crew really small. Police would always crackdown on us. They’d be like “you can’t shoot in the streets.” Because I did the docudrama, I did get a letter saying that I could shoot anywhere, which was awesome. We would just show this letter to people. Afghans are really hospitable. If you approach them, friendly and nice, they’ll let you shoot in their houses.

But we really had to keep a low profile in terms of the stuff going on around us. To shoot something on the street, I would set up a zoom lens, and I would shoot from across the street, or somewhere else, through the car or something. I would shoot for a couple minutes, and then I’d be out of there.

In the morning, we would pack everything in the back of a local taxi. One thing I learned was that you’re better off in a private taxi. Kabul taxi is something that’s trusted. I always felt safe with them because they keep a super low profile.

We shot with a DSLR—there were no big rigs or anything like that. It looked like we were shooting photographs. If they didn’t like us, we would just move. I don’t think anyone really knew that we were shooting anything.

While we were there, there were several attacks. Tolo TV has been targeted. They hit one of their buses. There was a constant threat to artists, to people working in the media industry, and foreigners.

One morning, an explosion occurred. Being crazy filmmakers, we just went back to shooting, and then it just went on. There was another attack the next day, one or two streets downs. We could hear gunfire. It’s random, so you try to keep safe. But there are people out there; they see you with a camera, and they know. They’re out for opportunities—so you try to decrease those opportunities.

One example really hit home because one of our actors nearly died. We were all invited to this stage play they had done at the French Cultural Centre—the venue has terrific security, and they put on really good shows. The show was about suicide bombing—we didn’t go because we were so busy; however, one of our leads, Leena, went. She’s really well-known in Afghanistan. In the middle the performance, an explosion went off. There was this kid who snuck it in, and sat down—it was chaos.

Leena said “the attack last night was on us. They want us to stop. Fuck them! We’re going to shoot this film.”

The hardest part is that people get worried when you work on a project that mentions “Taliban” anywhere. It’s about flying kites—everyone loves that. And then the Taliban bans kites! It’s a fear machine, that’s the problem. That was hard. For a lot of actors, it had to be “this part has nothing to do with the Taliban.” And it was a matter of finding people who are defiant, and finding people who wouldn’t care. That was one of the hardest parts.

It’s a political film without being political. We had this one communist guy who watched the film who was like “it all went to hell when the Russians left, didn’t it?” And I was like, “you can see it that way.” I think as a filmmaker, I’ve done my job really well if I don’t pick sides—a pro-communist guy watches it and sees that and then an anti-communist guy who also saw the film may say; “those Russians fucked everything up.”

Eighty percent of the population is under 25, and all of these people grew up during the time of the Taliban. And guess what? The Taliban did a really good job of burning all of those books. So there is a general memory-loss of history, and therefore, Afghan identity. And I think that’s one reason to be specific about the history.

At some point, I’d like to show the movie in Afghanistan. It’s one of those things you have to do. And it’s one of the things I’m looking forward to—to see the reaction. When I made the second season of Truth Unveiled, we screened it first to advertisers, and this guy came up to me and gave me this soft threat. He was like “you’re not going to have long to live.”

I was so scared for a while; I always watched over my shoulder. You just don’t know—it could go either way. I would love to go back and screen my work. I think stories are a good way of healing this nation that’s been through so much.

But if they want to kill someone, of course, they can kill anyone they choose—random attacks happen. But they specifically targeted so many people. They can get to anybody if they want to.

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