Spotlight on the Future of Afghan Cinema

The future of Afghan cinema is looking very bright indeed due to organizations such as the Afghan Film Project, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to supporting and building capacity in Afghanistan’s growing film industry. Read on to learn more about how the Afghan Film Project got started and where it’s headed next.

What is the Afghan Film Project?

afghanfilmprojectBased in Kabul and Los Angeles, the Afghan Film Project (AFP) is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization that aims to empower Afghan filmmakers to tell Afghan stories. AFP aims to connect local filmmakers with the resources, experience, and opportunities they need to help bring their unique stories to the screen. At the same time, AFP focuses on building local industry capacity by providing practical training and education to producers, directors, and crews (including positions such as grips, electricians, and cinematographers). Through workshops, skills development classes, and mentorship opportunities offered by AFP, the next generation of Afghan filmmakers will gain the vital tools they need to produce films of the highest standard for both domestic and international audiences. AFP also helps to connect filmmakers and film professionals with grants and other funding opportunities.

The team behind AFP is comprised of internationally recognized film professionals who are passionate about Afghanistan and dedicated to sharing their skills and knowledge with emerging filmmakers. Board members include the Afghan-Canadian filmmaker and visual artist Ariel Nasr, who has directed the award-winning documentaries Good Morning Kandahar and The Boxing Girls of Kabul; Academy and Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker and photographer Leslie Knott, whose films include Out of the Ashes; and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Samuel French, whose work has been presented by a number of broadcast outlets including HBO, National Geographic, and Al Jazeera.

How did the Afghan Film Project start?

In 2008, AFP co-founder and board member Samuel French moved to Kabul. With almost no previous knowledge of Afghanistan and little idea of what to expect from his time in the country, French found himself in the middle of a culturally complex nation full of unique stories waiting to be told. Inspired by the fascinating people and places around him, French began to write the script for the short film Buzkashi Boys in collaboration with England-born, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Martin Roe. In order to facilitate the development and production process for the film, AFP was founded in 2009.

Buzkashi Boys

buzkashiboysAs the AFP’s inaugural project, Buzkashi Boys was an important step forward for Afghanistan’s burgeoning film industry and served to usher in a new era of Afghan cinema to the world stage. Filmed entirely on location in Kabul during the winter of 2011, the 30-minute narrative film tells the story of two best friends striving to forge their own future as they grow to manhood under challenging circumstances. An official selection at numerous international film festivals, Buzkashi Boys received extensive critical praise for its emotionally captivating portrait of life in contemporary Afghanistan and its stunning cinematography. In 2013, the film received an Academy Award nomination in the category of Live Action Short.

For the AFP, the international recognition that Buzkashi Boys received was a fitting conclusion to what had been a passionate and challenging experiment in cross-border collaborative filmmaking. Armed with a $200,000 grant from the US State Department, which comprised the majority of the funding for the film, AFP brought more than a dozen young Afghan filmmakers on board to work with the international crew that assembled to make Buzkashi Boys, giving many of them their first taste of the ins and outs of working on a high-caliber film. Due to the support and skills from these mentor-trainee relationships, these filmmakers have since gone on to make and produce their own projects, exactly as the AFP intended.

Upcoming and related projects

As a follow-up to Buzkashi Boys, AFP formed a partnership in 2012 with the Tiziano Project, an organization that helps to provide community members from developing regions that have been impacted by conflict with the tools and training they need to tell their stories and improve lives. The fruit of this partnership was Stories from: Kabul, a collaborative project between high school students in Kabul and Philadelphia. The students received training in video journalism skills and prepared reports on cultural, political, and economic themes to compare and contrast the concept of community and civic engagement in both cities. Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center was an additional partner on the project.

Today, fueled by the success of its early endeavors, AFP continues to move ahead with a variety of initiatives designed to support its goal of empowering Afghan filmmakers. Plans are underway for an ongoing workshop series to teach filmmaking basics to emerging Afghan artists and storytellers. In addition, Development Pictures, a production company established by AFP co-founder Samuel French, is working to locate distribution opportunities for a number of new Afghan-made projects, including the television series Kabul at Work, which examines the extraordinary lives of ordinary Afghans.

How Afghanistan’s Heritage Is Being Restored

Preserving the cultural heritage of Afghanistan is becoming more important as the nation rebuilds after decades of war. Years of turmoil and fighting have ruined artifacts, destroyed historical sites, and resulted in the loss of important treasures and traditions. It wasn’t until recently that archaeologists and historians have been able to begin the process of analyzing and cataloging the nation’s artifacts in an attempt to preserve what remains.

The Written Word

Perhaps most discouraging for many generations of Afghans is the loss of written texts and historical accounts. Many documents have been lost or destroyed, including works of literature and history, newspaper archives, and other priceless written materials that are important to Afghan culture, heritage, and history. Several generations of children have passed through school without access to books and written resources beyond what is covered in their curriculum. In the last several years, historians have taken steps to ensure future generations do not suffer the same fate.

Working in conjunction with Afghanistan’s Minister of Information and Culture, the United States Library of Congress has digitized its extensive collection of materials related to Afghanistan. This collection includes books, maps, photographs, newspapers, manuscripts, and more, all created in Afghanistan or written about Afghanistan, in Dari, Pashto, Persian, and other languages. Most of the documents are copies of historical texts that no longer exist in Afghanistan, having been destroyed by war and time. Some of the items can’t be found anywhere else, making their preservation and return to the people of Afghanistan—a process known as “virtual repatriation”—all the more meaningful.

With material dating from the early 1300s all the way through the 1900s, the collection includes the equivalent of more than 160,000 pages of text. Many of the materials in the collection were gathered from sources around the world, in a process that took more than three years. With six field offices spread throughout the world, the Library of Congress was able to collect historical documents concerning Afghanistan from other nations as well.

A nation’s history typically intersects with that of other countries and cultures, resulting in writings that communicate a variety of perspectives and insights about the nation in question. In the US, for example, the writings of visiting French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville provide a fascinating view of the young United States in the 1830s. In the case of Afghanistan, as traders and explorers travelled through the country, maps, journals, and other written documentation was kept by foreigners, and is now being used to give Afghans another look at their own history.

The documents have been presented to Afghanistan’s Minister of Information and Culture on several hard drives containing a total of seven terabytes of information, for disbursement to various schools and museums throughout the country. Ten institutions will receive copies of the materials: the National Archive of Afghanistan, the National Library of Afghanistan, and several universities. In addition, the material is in “raw data” format, meaning the institutions can not only make the material available in digitized form, but they can download it, incorporate it into their existing databases, or print it.

In addition, the documents are available to anyone with an Internet connection via the World Digital Library.

Cultural Artifacts

In addition to the written documents being returned to Afghanistan, much work has been done to preserve physical artifacts that remain in the country. An international team of archaeologists has been mapping the country’s known historic sites and monuments, inputting the information into a geographic information system (GIS).

Many of the sites have been looted, the result of war and turmoil that have stripped gold mines and destroyed historic monuments. Despite those challenges, the team continues to create a database of the remaining sites to help direct historians, local communities, universities, and others who are looking to preserve the nation’s history.

The lack of such a database has resulted in homes being built over excavated sites near Kabul, while people working in fields have dug up and destroyed artifacts, and looters and antiquities dealers have robbed the Afghan people of many treasures. The database is particularly important as the country begins issuing mining permits and as the infrastructure of the country is being rebuilt.

To historians, the nation of Afghanistan is an open-air museum, with centuries of history and archaeological treasures spread across the landscape. There is a wealth of sites that must be identified and documented in order to be preserved. Knowing where potential historical sites may be located can prevent further loss and damage.

The rebuilding of Afghanistan is important for its future, but the preservation of its past is equally as important. By reacquiring and cataloging written texts and other artifacts, the nation will be able to preserve and honor its past. With access to this historical record, future generations will be able to learn about the importance of Afghanistan in the world’s history.

A Look at Afghanistan’s Rich Tradition of Dance

It is easy to forget that, after decades of war and conflict that have battered Afghanistan’s landscape, part of the country’s rebuilding efforts is a return to normalcy. The people of Afghanistan are not only struggling to rebuild their physical infrastructure, housing, and farms, they are also attempting to rebuild culturally as well. An entire generation of Afghans has had little opportunity to discover and explore their rich heritage and ancient customs. To preserve a sense of national identity, parents are again teaching their children the importance of culture. One aspect of Afghan heritage that has been obscured during the long conflict is dance.

Dance has been an integral part of Afghan life for centuries—it is an art form practiced by all of the ethnic groups in the country. The largest of these groups include the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Traditional dances can vary in style, music, and costume across different ethnic groups and geographic regions.

Traditional Attitudes Toward Dance

Traditionally, women do not participate in dances, unless the dance is being conducted within a private home or as part of a family celebration with other women. In traditional Afghan culture, it is considered unacceptable for a woman to perform as a dancer in public, so professional dancers were traditionally men until recently. Influences from nearby India have begun to change the perception of women as dancers, and within the Kabul region, it is becoming more acceptable for women to perform.

The Atan

Considered by many to be the national dance of Afghanistan, the Atan is a circle dance that includes ten or more people. Accompanied by drums, the dancers form a circle and begin a slow turn around the dance floor. As the drum beat builds, the dancers move more quickly, snapping, singing, and clapping as they whirl around the circle. This dance can last for hours, and is characterized by the quick spinning and movements of the body. Men may carry handkerchiefs, scarves, swords, or guns to use during the dance. On rare occasions, the dance may be performed by a mixed group of men and women, during which the dance is accompanied by singing. The men sing love songs, which are answered by the women. The actions of the dancers help to define the dialogue, making this a fun, energetic dance for all.

Herati Atan

Another form of the Atan dance is known as the Herati Atan. Performed by groups of men, this processional style dance is performed with a leader, who guides the dancers through the motions while being accompanied by several musical instruments. The men line up and face each other, performing mimicking actions to the beat of the music. Dancers make small, concentric circles, while clapping their hands over their heads and waving scarves. The leaders instruct the dancers in the number of claps, the direction to turn, or the speed of the dance. The dance is fascinating to watch, as the dancers move in and out, resembling the opening and closing of a flower.

Shalangi

The shalangi dance is primarily a dance of two women, although on some occasions, two men may perform it. The dancers start in opposite corners of the room, facing each other. As the music begins to play, they begin to move toward each other, clapping in a rhythmic beat over their heads. They approach each other, using a shuffling step, “squaring off” in the center of the dance floor. During the dance, the two women may mimic each other’s movements, but may also make alternate movements in an attempt to confuse the other dancer. Other dance techniques, such as facial movements, the use of scarves, or the accompaniment of lyrics make this a fun dance to observe.

Logari

The traditional dance of Logar, a province south of Kabul, is generally performed by skilled performers. The musicians try to “trick” the performers by suddenly stopping during the dance, forcing the dancers to freeze in position until the music starts again. The pause may last as long as a minute in a good-natured attempt to defeat the dancers. This “stop dance” can be exciting and noisy, as the musicians play quickly and loudly, and the dancers call out to each other and the musicians as they banter back and forth.

Ozbaki

Ozbaki dance styles are predominantly performed by people in the northern regions of Afghanistan. With a focus on footwork, the dancers move in a series of motions that mimic running, stepping, and hopping. As the music shifts in tempo, from fast to slow, the dancers move in time, shifting their bodies left and right. Dancers generally keep their hands at their sides, to call the audience’s attention to their quick steps and footwork instead. Musicians playing along with these dances are talented and inventive, often changing the style of music quickly to keep the dance interesting.

The Afghan people’s celebration of their cultural roots is an important part of the rebuilding process, as well as a way to strengthen their heritage. As people celebrate holidays and mark the seasons and events with dance, communities share these rituals with younger generations.

Featured Image by Presidio of Monterey | Flickr

Restoring Afghanistan’s Heritage, One Artifact at a Time

Of the news coming out of Afghanistan in recent years, the rediscovery of national treasures once thought to be destroyed is some of the most exciting. During decades of war, and even in the aftermath, looters and pillagers stole antiquities and treasures from ancient sites, museums, and other places of note. These rarities have either been destroyed, smuggled out of the country, or sold to black market dealers.

Thankfully, the diligent work of archaeologists, historians, and police to recover key pieces of Afghanistan’s history has restored a sense of national pride and awareness to the Afghan people.

Afghanistan’s Heritage

art

Image by Ninara | Flickr

As a key point in the famed Silk Road, Afghanistan has a long, rich heritage of cultural and historical significance. Along the international roadway, ancient cultures and religions crisscrossed the Middle East, leaving artifacts and traditions behind. Influences from Greece, Rome, Egypt, India, and China can be seen in the artifacts found within the nation, providing a tangible history that demonstrates both the importance and the longevity of Afghanistan’s culture.

The Bactrian Hoard

More than 20,000 artifacts from the ancient nation of Bactria, once located along the Silk Road, were thought lost during the years of war and turmoil following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In late 2003, however, Afghan officials discovered the entire collection hidden in boxes below the Presidential Palace in Kabul. The restoration of these pieces to the Afghan people was one of the first glimmers of hope for the eventual rebuilding of the nation.

The Heathrow Collection

Over the years, priceless artifacts from the oft-looted National Museum of Afghanistan have been slowly accumulating at Heathrow Airport, evidence of the booming black market for antiquities. Fortunately, airport and museum officials have worked together to return the items to the National Museum, recovering 3.4 tons of antiquities over six years. Arranging the delivery took nearly a year and required the cooperation of dozens of people around the world. Officials catalogued more than 1,500 pieces, some dating back 8,000 years.

The Recovery

Much of the museum’s extensive collection was hidden from looters during the years of war, but nearly 70,000 pieces were stolen from the reserve inventory. The museum director, Omara Khan Masoudi, began a recovery mission that spanned the globe and at many times resembled an adventure story brought to life.

British diplomats flying in to Kabul notified Masoudi of the pile-up of confiscated artifacts at Heathrow. Using museum catalogs, he compared the recovered pieces to the lists of stolen items and discovered that none of them were a match. After much research, it was discovered that the Heathrow collection was comprised of pieces that had been illegally excavated and were being exported without permits. Due to the illegal excavation, most of the recovered pieces lost their identity markers, making them unverifiable for museum display.

Continued Recovery

The recovery effort and multi-national network of cooperation persists even today. Artifacts continue to be recovered at Heathrow Airport, a heavily used gateway for objects being smuggled out of the Middle East. Working with antiquities experts from Afghanistan, custom officials at the airport have compiled a “Red List” detailing thousands of artifacts that have been lost or stolen during the decades of war. Officials perform random searches of passengers, finding artifacts tucked into hidden compartments or checked into carryon luggage. They also find objects on customs forms incorrectly declared or valued in an effort to downplay their importance.

Continued Looting

Even as the nation rebuilds, individuals continue to pillage ancient sites and smuggle artifacts out of the country. Due to the nation’s economic instability, villagers are forced to loot and resell these objects as a source of income. Archaeologists and historians, working in conjunction with law enforcement officials, are establishing protocols to quell the tide of artifacts leaving the country, but they have been unsuccessful thus far.

More Than Artifacts

While the recovery of artifacts and historical objects is important to the cultural history of Afghanistan, it is important on another level that may not be immediately obvious. To people that have been traumatized by war, fighting, and oppressive rule, the re-emergence of pieces of their history restores a sense of identity and pride. An entire generation of Afghans can learn about the country’s rich heritage, which had been feared forever lost. Combined efforts of government officials, non-governmental organizations, and determined citizens are helping to rebuild Afghanistan, preparing for a future beyond the years of war.

What You Need to Know about Afghan Food

Located along the historic trade routes between India, China, the Middle East and Europe, Afghanistan has a rich history of residing at the crossroad of cultures. The food of Afghanistan is a wonderful representation of the varied cultural influences. Today, after decades of conflict, the tradition of providing guests with hospitality and heaping servings of delicious food continues. Understanding the importance of the traditions and food in a culture can lead to a greater capacity for seeing the similarities between people around the world.

History of Food in Afghanistan

spicesWhile Afghan foods have a style all their own, there are distinct influences from surrounding nations that have merged with native dishes to provide a unique flavor. Traders from India brought spices such as saffron, chilies, and garam masala (a mixture of nutmeg, cloves, cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon). Iran’s contribution was the use of coriander and mint, as well as spinach. Mongolia shared its fondness for noodles and dumplings. These new flavors, combined with the meat-rich diet necessary for this landscape of harsh winters, provide a palate of delicious, varied foods.

Main Dishes

Afghan diets are based on rich, fatty meats and oils. Chunks of meat served on skewers could be identified as the nation’s “fast food” and can be found in nearly every street market. Long metal skewers are laced through lamb, cooked over charcoal, and served with naan. Meat dishes may also include ribs, lamb chops, or a variety of meatballs. Korma, a popular dish, consists of a base of onion and garlic, with vegetables, meat, and spices added to make a delicious stew.

Side Dishes

Rice, which is a staple of the Afghan diet, is regarded by some as the best part of a meal. Several varieties of rice-based dishes may be served at each meal, and formal occasions such as weddings may feature sweet and savory recipes. A popular dish, Kabuli pilao, consists of a dome of rice seasoned with cardamom, raisins and nuts, and slow-cooked meat. Other dishes may include fluffy, white rice or a creamy rice pudding.

Due to Mongolian influences, dumplings are often served in Afghan homes, but are generally reserved for private meals due to the extensive amount of time that it takes to prepare them. Ashak, a vegetable filled tortellini-like pasta, is served with a garlic yogurt sauce and spicy meat. Meat-filled pockets known as mantoo are covered in a tomato sauce and served along with rice.

Dairy Products

Considering Afghanistan’s agricultural lifestyle, dairy products play an important role in meals in the country. Nearly every meal includes some form of dairy. Yogurt is served as a sauce for meats, as an accompaniment to rice dishes, and as a dessert with dried fruit and nuts. Curds may be dried into small balls for cooking, and boiled curd is often served for breakfast.

Beverages

green teaTea, which is the beverage of choice in Afghanistan, is served with every meal. Depending on the occasion, tea may be served spiced, or with milk or cream. More formal occasions call for sugared tea to be served to honor guests, while informal meals may feature strong black tea. Tea time, which is another important Afghan ritual, consists of a midday snack of dried fruits, sweets, and pastries served with black or green tea.

Dining Customs

Similar to mealtime around the world, Afghanistan has its own set of customs and rituals that define a typical meal. Meals in Afghanistan are typically eaten with the right hand. Instead of utensils, diners use bread as a scoop. There are two types of bread commonly used. They include a naan bread, which is deeply grooved and which has sesame or nigella seeds sprinkled on top, or a large, flat bread.

One of the most important parts of any meal in Afghanistan is the dastarkhan, which consists of a tablecloth laden with the offerings of the meal placed on the floor. Diners are seated around the dastarkhan. Members of the dining party may have certain duties, such as tea pourer, and guests are often seated near the best dishes. Customs may vary based on region and tradition, but every meal in Afghanistan is centered around the tenet of hospitality and sharing. According to traditional lore, no one was ever turned away from a meal, even if the individual was a virtual stranger to the family.

For the people of Afghanistan, there is comfort in maintaining the traditions of centuries that focus on hospitality and shared meals. For the global community attempting to find common ground with a group of people who have largely been unknown, there is a sense of camaraderie around the table, whether it is a traditional dining room table or a dastarkhan. Learning about the customs, including the food of Afghanistan, can go a long way toward building bridges that unite—rather than divide—the world.