People in Film: Barmak Akram
Nov 30, 2013
Among the titles screening at Ajyal, there’s one that everybody is talking about. After its first screening on Thursday night, ‘Wajma’ – an unblinking, unapologetic look at the reality of a woman caught in a situation from which there is no escape – left the audience speechless and in tears. A second screening is scheduled for tonight at 8:15 PM.
We met with the film’s director, Barmak Akram, to talk about this powerful film, winner of the Screenwriting Award at Sundance 2013 and Afghanistan’s official entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
DFI: What did you think when they proposed to screen your film at a Youth Film Festival? Do you think a younger audience will be able to relate to your film?
Barmak Akram: Absolutely! Just 10 days ago I screened my film in France in a festival for high-school students and it won the Public Award. Since the main character of the movie is a young woman who’s just fallen in love, the teenagers at the festival could relate completely with her. During the screening I was outside and I saw three of four girls coming out of the theatre in tears. I told them: “You have to go back to the theatre because the ending is not so somber, it leaves you hopeful.” I love to see youngsters attending my films, I make my films mostly for them.
DFI: Did the film screen in Afghanistan? If so, what were the reactions?
Akram: I had to screen the film to the Afghan Censorship Committee and I was quite worried about their reactions, but two members of the censorships were really moved by the film and one even cried during the screening. He told them: “We can’t cut this film, we need to show it in its original version”, which was important to me because my films reflect reality. The film also opened the Human Rights Festival in Kabul and it was so popular that they had to add two screenings, because all the inspiring Afghan filmmakers were so proud that this film had been selected for Sundance and Cannes and wanted to see it.
DFI: Was it difficult to find an actress for the title role?
Akram: Very. I really salute the actress, Wajma – as well as her mother and her grandmother – for having the courage to act in this film, and even for keeping their real names, because it’s quite dangerous in a country like Afghanistan to get that kind of exposure. The population has a hard time separating reality from fiction. Just to give you an example, Wajma’s mother has played some roles on TV, and because of the characters she’s played, when she walks in the street very often she’s often insulted. Luckily, she is a warrior, an extremely strong woman, and she doesn’t let these things beat her down. Actually, on top of being an actress, she is also a policewoman in the Special Forces – she carries a gun and all, so she is not afraid of anybody. I adore her. Consider that she lost her husband in the war against the Taliban when Wajma was only two or three years old. When a woman becomes a widow, Afghan tradition requires her to marry her brother-in-law, but even though he proposed to her, she refused him. For this, her late husband’s family has rejected her, and when she also lost her father, she had to find a job and start earning a living to take care of her mother and daughter. Wajma’s mother convinced her daughter to attend lessons from a famous theatre director, so in the end I was lucky to find at the same time two actresses for the key roles. Actually three, since Wajma’s grandmother also appears in the film. I ended up shooting in their real house, so that the government was not aware of what was going on. I actually told the government that I was shooting a documentary on Wajma’s family.
DFI: Do you consider your film a political one?
Akram: Definitely. I am an advocate of women’s rights. Before shooting the film, in 2010 I went to a hospital where there were 250 women burnt, some self-inflicted, some by their husbands. I don’t understand why in Tunisia a person setting himself on fire triggered the Arab Spring, while in Afghanistan there are [all these] women burnt alive and that doesn’t get any reaction whatsoever. This said, I don’t like to judge my characters. It’s my ethical approach to cinema. As a filmmaker, I can only ask questions. To put it in the words of Abbas Kiarostami: “A film is a question; it’s up to the audience to give an answer”.
DFI: Can you tell us something about the title? Why did you called it “An Afghan Love Story”?
Akram: If you look at all the love story, such as ‘Romeo and Juliet’, or ‘Layla and Majnun’, it’s always about two people who are in love with each other but are separated by the society and the environment. For me, Wajma is a love story in the Afghan way, because the Afghan society inevitably affects these characters and their story. In other countries, where for example virginity is not such a big issue, things would have happened differently and their story would have had a different outcome.
DFI: The style of your film is very interesting. On one hand, it’s very realistic, almost cinéma-vérité. At the same time, plenty of images are profound symbols, almost metaphors, of the situation the characters are living in (the brutal dog fights in the streets of Kabul, a father losing his balance on slippery snow and so on)…
Akram: Precisely. Even the fact that the father, at the beginning of the film, is defusing mines becomes metaphorical. That comes from a precise concept I created for this film, which is something I’d call “symbolisme en direct” [live symbolism]. Often a director creates metaphors early in the script, and then he recreates them while making the film. But in this case the symbols and metaphors came directly from shooting. I’ll give you an example. On the very first day we were trying the camera equipment, we were on a rooftop, and as we were filming down we saw two pigeons bickering and kissing each other while, at the same time, a Mullah was chanting the call to prayer from a mosque. That is, to me, direct symbolism, when reality is so resonant that turns itself into a symbol. There are many moments in the film, like the ones you mentioned. For example, the dog fights in the street are a clear symbol of the aggressiveness and love for violence of Afghan men, but I would have never re-created, or even provoked, these fights; that would be immoral. I just happened to shoot real dog fights in the street, and they turned into a powerful metaphor of the environment where Wajma lives. At the same time, the recurrent shot of doors in the film, reflects the separation between the inner rules and the outer rules of society.