'Kabul I love you' brings Afghan woes to the big screen

A decade after the fall of the cinema-hating Taliban, a group of Afghan directors have created a film love letter to their capital, rooted in the grim reality of everyday life in the war-torn city.

Forced marriage, people smuggling, illegal land grabs, land mines and ethnic conflict -- life in Kabul is not short of problems, and "Kabul I Love You" explores them through 10 interwoven stories.

Afghanistan's film industry was hammered by 17 years of war after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and was snuffed out entirely under the extreme rule of the Taliban.

During their 1996-2001 regime, the hardliners closed cinemas and hung televisions from lampposts, regarding all images as un-Islamic. Even sculptures were targeted, with the famous giant Buddhas of Bamiyan paying the price.

Now Afghan cinema is struggling to re-emerge amid a wrecked economy and an ongoing insurgency against the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

Afghanistan produces around 100 films a year, according to documentary-maker Malek Shafi'i, but they are shot on tiny budgets and are often very poor.

"Kabul I Love You" has been funded by the UN mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, as a means of giving the country's cinema a boost.

Ario Soltani, from UNAMA, says the idea was to encourage film-makers to develop their own ideas.

"We wanted to reach the film-makers, to support them, to communicate with Afghan people," he said.

"Not with our messages but with theirs. We hope they reflect the Afghan society and the Afghan ideas of that time."

The funding project was not an unqualified success -- one of the 11 directors chosen from 200 applicants fled the country as soon as he got his hands on UNAMA's $8,000, while another left for Iran after being threatened.

But despite these setbacks, the film was shot and got a warm reception when it was screened at the French cultural centre in Kabul in May.

The directors are raw and parts of the film betrayed their lack of experience -- exaggerated characters, hammy dialogue and deathly slow pace.

But others showed real flair, with the modest, restrained dialogue of Farhad Razae's segment, a bitter denunciation of forced marriage, a highlight.

In the short section, titled "Virgin Towers", the caretaker of a mosque learns that a pretty young woman in his place of worship has fled her family to escape marrying one of her relatives.

The young woman, denounced by a neighbour, ends up running from the police. Her heavy breath and field of vision restricted by the burqa she wears to hide herself allow the viewer to feel the horror of the condition of women in Afghanistan.

Rezae said he based the film on experiences he had as a young man looking after a mosque.

"During that time, a girl was coming for prayers. She would rest in the mosque two hours after the prayers. I wanted to know who this girl is, but I was ashamed and because of religion, I never asked her what her problems were," said Rezae.

Shafi'i hailed Rezae's achievement, saying he had "managed to get closer to Afghan realities" than other film-makers.

Writers and artists have been pushing boundaries in what remains an extremely conservative society in the past five years, Shafi'i said.

"Now, people have started to realise that if they cross borders, nothing will happen to them," he said.

NATO forces are due to depart Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and the precarious security situation they will leave behind is not likely to be conducive to this dream of artistic growth.

Saying "Kabul I Love You" is a message of hope from these budding film-makers for their future.

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