The only movie made in Afghanistan this year was directed by a woman, who says she cast herself when the original actress's feet were cut off by the Taliban. At the premiere in Kabul, some were slightly more skeptical.
The film is about a woman who starts a cafe that serves wine in war-torn Kabul and brings together coalition troops and Afghans, despite death threats and then assassinations by the Taliban. Judging from the trailer, which contains the subtitled line, "The open mic, poetry and music in your restaurant are detrimental and not allowed in Islam!" the Taliban is less concerned about the alcohol and more about the jam.
According to The Times' writeup of the premiere, Afghans watching had other quibbles: they said it was clearly made by someone who didn't live there (true — Sonia Nassery Cole left in the 70s, as a teenager, though she's been active in Afghanistan-related causes for decades) because of all the public touching and female swearing happening. "The director and workers grew up in America and don't know much about Afghan culture, that is the point," said one person. At least, says The Times, "the audience [stayed] until the end, although many people engaged in loud cellphone conversations throughout."
And no one has heard of the actress who allegedly had her feet cut off by the Taliban, though Cole says that's because she's based in Pakistan, and the head of the Afghan Film organization says the claim is "propaganda."
Watching a film about something you know about, especially one made by an outsider or an expat, is always an exercise in indignant "that's not how it happened/how these people talk/what that looks like" (for me, this is true of everything from Munich to You Don't Mess With The Zohan to The Social Network trailer). But for Afghans, there is a whole other set of concerns, stemming from the fact that their modern history has been comprised of everyone else determining the fate of their country, or fighting over what that fate will be.
And the Los Angeles-based Nassery herself seems to exemplify the "Save Afghan Women" crusaders that are sometimes criticized for being paternalistic. (She told The Wall Street Journal of her teenage correspondence with Ronald Reagan, "I knew I wanted to save Afghanistan so I said, ‘OK, who's the president of the United States? Reagan. Well, he can do something.'") She's friends with Henry Kissinger from her younger days in "neoconservative social circles," and The Journal called her a "socialite," though she sounded like she wouldn't choose the word for herself.
Still, there's no doubting her intense determination: she mortgaged her home and sold her stuff to pay for the movie, and she stayed in Kabul shooting even after her hotel was bombed, machine gun fire was aimed at her, and threatening phone calls. Her crew decided it wasn't worth it and went home. ("I could feel death. I didn't sign up for that," one told the Times.)
Though the U.S. government and Cole were smart to start with the Afghans in showing this one, the film probably isn't for them at all. The rest of us could stand to see and think a little more about life in this country we're entangled with, however hokey-seeming or inauthentic, and then hope for a day when the Afghans are making the films again themselves.