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Afghan director Sahraa Karimi recounts escape from Kabul

20.08.2021

Now safe in Ukraine, the head of the Afghan Film Organization is working to help dozens of other filmmakers flee the Taliban. She warns of a "genocide" of artists as the militant extremists take over Afghanistan.

Prominent Afghan filmmaker Sahraa Karimi has recounted her and her family's harrowing flight from Afghanistan to safety in Ukraine. They arrived in Kyiv on Tuesday, roughly two days after the Taliban took control of Kabul and after missing an initial flight out amidst the chaos of Kabul airport.

"The moment that we missed the first airplane, it was the most sad moment of my life because I thought: okay, we cannot go anymore. We stay. And then I started again. You know why? Because I am a fighter. I never give up. I never ever give up," she said in a Reuters interview aired on DW's Arts & Culture TV news program.

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Arts and Culture | 22.08.2021

Arts and Culture - Thursday, August 19, 2021

Karimi is the president of the state-owned Afghan Film Organization, the director of the award-nominated film Hava, Maryam, Ayesha (2019) and the only Afghan woman with a Ph.D. in cinema.

Karimi had published an open letter on August 13 calling on the international film community to act to protect filmmakers and other cultural creatives from Taliban violence.

Karimi studied film in Slovakia at the Slovak Film and Television Academy. The academy's president and the Turkish and Ukrainian governments helped her and her relatives escape.

Fleeing for the future of her nieces

DW reporter Scott Roxborough, who spoke to Karimi after she arrived in Ukraine, said the filmmaker hadn't initially wanted to leave Afghanistan despite the danger posed to her as the leading female Afghan film director.

"The reason she wanted to escape was she began thinking about her nieces, the youngest of which is 2 years old, and the idea of them growing up under the Taliban regime. That because they were girls, they wouldn't be able to go to school, they wouldn't be educated, they wouldn't be able to work, and she said the thought of that fate for them was too much," Roxbourgh said on DW's Arts & Culture program.

Sahraa Karimi at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, where her movie 'Hava, Maryam Ayesha' was screened

While the Taliban has claimed it will respect women's rights, it has said it will do so within the framework of its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Under past Taliban rule, girls were barred from school, women were banned from work and draconian punishments were imposed upon those considered to have broken the rules; art and cultural undertakings, particularly by women, were essentially nonexistent.

"Under Taliban rule, you live, okay, but a miserable life. Life isn't just about eating or wearing clothing. It is about creativity, it is about art, it is about culture, it is about creating thinking, about philosophy of life," Karimi said in the TV interview.

10 films about Afghanistan
'Hava, Maryam, Ayesha' (2019)

The latest film by Afghan director Sahraa Karimi premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2019. It portrays three women, all living in Kabul but in different social contexts, who deal in their own way with pregnancy. The filmmaker's recent open letter warning against the Taliban was sent out to the world just before Kabul was taken. She has since fled Afghanistan and is now in Kyiv.

10 films about Afghanistan
'Osama' (2003)

Under the first Taliban regime (1996–2001), women were banned from working in most fields of society, jeopardizing subsistence for families whose male members were killed or injured in conflict. "Osama" follows a young girl who disguises herself as a boy to support her family. It was the first movie to be filmed entirely in Afghanistan since 1996, as the Taliban had also banned filmmaking.

10 films about Afghanistan
'The Breadwinner' (2017)

The award-winning Irish studio Cartoon Saloon created an animated film with a similar story: "The Breadwinner," based on the best-selling novel by Deborah Ellis, is also about a determined young girl who takes on the appearance of a boy to support her family. Executive produced by Angelina Jolie, the film received an Oscar nomination for best animated feature.

10 films about Afghanistan
'The Kite Runner' (2007)

Based on the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini and directed by German-Swiss filmmaker Marc Forster, "The Kite Runner" deals with universal themes such as guilt and redemption, but the story is anchored in Afghanistan's tumultuous past half century, covering the fall of the monarchy, the Soviet military intervention, the mass exodus of Afghan refugees and the Taliban regime.

10 films about Afghanistan
'Kandahar' (2001)

This film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran's great directors, tells the story of an Afghan-Canadian who returns to her homeland to save her sister from committing suicide. "Kandahar" didn't get much attention when it premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. But then came the September 11 attacks, and the world wanted to find out more about the hardships faced by women in Afghanistan.

10 films about Afghanistan
'At Five in the Afternoon' (2003)

Two years later, Mohsen Makmalbaf's daughter, Samira, another leading name of the Iranian New Wave, also premiered a film centering on Afghan women at the Cannes Film Festival. "At Five in the Afternoon" tells the story of a young woman in war-torn Kabul who dreams of becoming president and tries to gain an education after the defeat of the Taliban. The film was also shot in the Afghan capital.

10 films about Afghanistan
'In This World' (2002)

"In This World" portrays two young Afghan refugees on their illegal journey from a refugee camp in Pakistan to London. The drama directed by Michael Winterbottom was shot in documentary style, and had non-professional actors performing fictionalized versions of themselves. It won the Golden Bear award at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival and the BAFTA for the best non-English film.

10 films about Afghanistan
'Lone Survivor' (2013)

The film "Lone Survivor" is based on the best-selling account of US Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, which depicts his participation in Operation Red Wings, targeting a group of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's Kunar Province in 2005. Luttrell, portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in the film, was the only one in his four-man SEAL team to survive an ambush; a helicopter sent to their aid was also shot down.

10 films about Afghanistan
'Rambo III' (1988)

The third film in Sylvester Stallone's series is set during the Soviet-Afghan War. Rambo heads to Afghanistan to rescue his former commander from the ruthless Soviet Army. Claims that the film initially had a dedication "to the brave Mujahideen fighters," later altered to "the gallant people of Afghanistan" after 9/11, have resurfaced this week — but fact checkers have found this is only a myth.

10 films about Afghanistan
'Charlie Wilson's War' (2007)

But during the Reagan administration, the US did support the Mujahideen, the anti-Soviet resistance fighters — who went on to form fundamentalist groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda. US Congressman Charlie Wilson (portrayed by Tom Hanks in the film directed by Mike Nichols and written by Aaron Sorkin) was a key proponent of the covert funding program, which continued as late as 1991.

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A 'genocide of filmmakers and artists'

In interviews with The Hollywood Reporter and Reuters news agency, Karimi described how she had been trying to withdraw money from a bank on Sunday when gunfire broke out. The bank manager told her to leave and took her out the back door. Unable to see a taxi, Karimi ran three miles through the city to get home, documenting it on Instagram.

Determined to get her family — including her five nieces — out of the country, she phoned the Slovak film academy, which told her about a flight out of Kabul to Ukraine she could take. But when they arrived at the airport — alongside thousands of other Afghans trying to flee — they were blocked from reaching the flight.

"A lot of people came to the airport and they just [were] catching airplane, like hugging [the] airplane, you know, just to take them. They were so hopeless, thousands, thousands [of] people. They were just trying to find escapeway, exit way," Karimi said in the TV interview.

Thousands of Afghans have gone to Kabul airport to try and get a flight out of the country

A few hours later, after talking to the officials who were helping her, Karimi and her family were able to board a Turkish flight to Ukraine via Istanbul.

She is now working from Ukraine to get 36 other Afghan filmmakers and their families out of the country, she told The Hollywood Reporter.

Karimi warned of a "genocide of filmmakers and artists" if the international community fails to act. "The Taliban have not changed. Ideologically, they live in the Stone Age," she said in the article.

The return of the Taliban will all but certainly end Afghanistan's nascent film industry, which had established itself nationally and internationally during the past two decades. Many highly regarded films by female Afghan directors, including Karimi's own Hava, Maryam, Ayesha — which was featured at the 2019 Venice Film Festival — have focused on the lives of Afghan women and the deeply rooted challenges and problems they face.

"[Afghan filmmakers'] voices are so important because those are exactly the voices that have been silenced for so long in Afghanistan. And the stories that they are telling are stories that the Western media hasn't been telling," DW's Scott Roxbourgh explained.

Cristina Burack