The lineup of documentaries at the Mumbai International Festival (January 28-February 3) includes 13 films from Afghanistan that have taken the long route to the city. The package is part of the 'Best of Fest' selection via the Afghan Documentary Film Festival in Stockholm, Sweden. Basir Seerat, director of the festival, is an Afghan documentary director who left Kabul for Europe in 2012. He spoke to about the selection of films and why he hopes they will touch a chord in Mumbai.

How did these particular films make their way to MIFF?

This package includes the films that were selected for ADFF in Sweden. They mirror the typical life of Afghanistan through the eyes of Afghan and international filmmakers. It includes the winner of the award for Best International Film on Afghanistan, Marzia, My Friend, by Kirsi Mattila, the Best Female Director award for Bearing the Weight, by Mona Haidari and Best Short Documentary, After Silence, by Rahman Alemi. We had an international adviser who helped us select the final package to screen in India. This year most of the films that were submitted focused more on women’s rights in Afghanistan, which is evident in the package too. Most of the filmmakers represent the new generation of Afghanistan and their stories were about women from both the positive and negative perspective.

Which of these films is special to an audience in Mumbai?

There are some films which will make the Indian audience happy. Marzia, My Friend tells the story of an Afghan woman in her twenties. Marzia, like all young people, dreams of love, freedom and an interesting job. But because she lives in Afghanistan, her dreams are revolutionary.

Similarly, Afghan Women Behind the Wheel uses the process of getting a driver’s license by a woman as a metaphor for freedom. Death to the Camera, directed by S Qasim Hosseini, is an observational film that follows a group of women working their last day on a job site, capturing their banter and shifting moods. And Frame by Frame by Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli chronicles the creation of a free press in Afghanistan and the efforts of four young photojournalists to capture their reality after the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014.

It is important to note that none of these films speaks about happiness. They speak from a republic of silence, which is sad. I hope the audience understands this aspect.

It is an interesting mix of films by foreign directors and Afghans. Was that a conscious effort?

Yes, it had to be a mix as Afghan filmmakers face a lot of challenges. For example, in 2015, no new films were made even for the national festivals. That’s why we worked with national and international films and selected the best films from what we got. Some films are even from five years ago.

We have Afghan directors who are influenced by European styles of filmmaking. Others who flow with the American storytelling and journalistic points of view. And we have filmmakers who were educated in Iran, which puts them typically in between these categories. All these styles are represented in the package at MIFF.

It is ironic that the package of Afghan films is coming from Stockholm. What is the situation of documentaries in Afghanistan today?

The problems faced by Afghan filmmakers are evident through two facts. One, they are working on films which are funded via NGOs, where they have no freedom. They work to make donors happy and get the next funding. Two, they have no access to international sources of funding, where they can make films for creativity, without pressure or interference.

We have good filmmakers who don’t have funds to make films, and we have bad filmmakers who got funding from Mafia sources and made films which destroyed the future of Afghan cinema.

Now at the moment Afghan cinema has nothing: no new films, no new productions and many filmmakers have escaped to Europe for a better life.

For many Afghan writers, filmmakers and the audience who have immigrated to Sweden, the ADFF was a chance to share stories from a real and forgotten war zone. People were really affected by the point of view of Afghan filmmakers too. We are trying to find more partners and friends around Asia to screen our package, and trying to get our films to an international audience.


What was the hope behind bringing these films to Mumbai, especially since we share close cultural ties to Afghanistan?

It’s true that we are very close with Indian culture and diversities and Afghan people are very interested in Indian cinema. If you look deeply, Indian popular culture like TV shows have changed Afghan society, beside the political aspects and the friendship we have with India. MIFF has opened a window to Afghan filmmakers and films about Afghanistan, to bring ideas to be discussed, to mainstream stories to be watched. I hope this package helps Indian producers remember Afghanistan, and realise how much Afghan filmmakers need cooperation and support in different ways.

Since 2003, French and German media activists and filmmakers have worked with Afghans. It’s time that India plays a magnificent role for the new generation of Afghan cinema, by using different tools like educating filmmakers, technical supports, film scholarships and funding their stories. These are the most urgent issues that Afghan cinema is missing until now.