You might not have heard of Salim Shaheen, but the tireless actor-producer-director has been a huge part of the film industry in war-torn Afghanistan. In fact, he IS the film industry in Afghanistan. We find out more about he man who has made over 100 films in a country where even watching one risks getting death sentence.
Charismatic and easy-going, Shaheen was the talk of Cannes earlier this year when he, and his troupe of actors walked the croisette to promote The Prince of Nothingwood, the documentary by French director Sonia Kronlund focusing on the Afghan performers. The film is a warts-and-all affair, highlighting the difficulties of making movies in a country where religious fanaticism has been bookended by foreign invaders from both east and west.
‘Nothingwood’ is the term the mercurial Shaheen came up with to describe his zero-budget efforts. One minute the lovable uncle type on set, he can, in the blink of an eye, morph into a diva intent on throwing his weight around and stomping off when things don’t appear to be going his way. Kronlund seems to understand the flamboyance of the man, perhaps because as a filmmaker herself, she understands the pressures, and it’s in their onscreen interactions that we see friction beginning to develop. There are moments when you sense Shaheen could lose his cool, but doesn’t.
One suspects, however, that his crew get an earful on a regular basis.
Hollywood (US), Bollywood (India), Nollywood (Nigeria)… Nothingwood (Afghanistan!)
He clearly works with miniscule budgets, but Shaheen has one priceless feature at his disposal: the stunning Afghan mountains and countryside. Surprisingly, there appears to be a modicum of government support for his current production, and we see a local official organise a private flight for the cast and crew. You wonder how much of that is to do with impressing the international documentary makers tagging along, but one thing is for real – the genuine affection of the locals in every corner of the country for Shaheen and his loyal band of men and women.
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Shaheen’s eccentricities are matched and often surpassed by Qurban Ali, his larger-than-life star actor, who is also a distant relative (although everyone has some link to the director). Ali cross-dresses, wears make-up and generally gallivants around, and that’s just on his way to the market, in-between shoots. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shaheen gives Ali the role of a lifetime – the chance to play Shaheen’s mother in an autobiographical movie about the director’s upbringing and early love of cinema.
Viewers learn about an off-screen incident a few years ago, where a rocket attack led to the deaths of several crew on one of Shaheen’s films. The military background of most of the crew and ‘fixers’ on the productions is comically portrayed in the aforementioned biopic we see being made as a film within Kronlund’s. This ‘meta-film’ reveals that Shaheen had been a commander decades earlier, and that he first began making movies with his soldiers.
Filmmakers on filmmakers
‘I didn’t know much about him, I just googled him at first,’ Sonia Kronlund told Culture Trip at The London Film Festival. ‘An Afghan filmmaker friend of mine gave me some of the DVDs and even the design of those were so funny and kitsch.’
‘He films and eats in a similar way. He was testing me to see how much I could eat… and as I didn’t eat that much he called me the sparrow. I knew he wanted to make the film, even if he claimed he didn’t. For me, I wanted to make it because I have been making documentaries about Afghanistan for 15 years now including stories about women’s rights and drugs. This was something a little different and I discovered something else. When you film the Taliban [as I have done], you get one image, but when I saw here that there was a guy who dresses as a woman [Qurban Ali] or that they film on the streets, I found something new myself. That’s rare to find a whole story that surprises you,’ Kronlund adds.
Shaheen comes across as a well-meaning, if sometimes unreliable narrator of his own story. Kronlund, however, doesn’t consider that to be particularly important.
‘I don’t know and I didn’t really try to find out,’ she says. ‘Parts of it are made up, but it’s a good story. I know what he says about not being able to go to the cinema when he was younger was probably true. It’s different to what we perceive; people eat, drink and smoke hash. It’s true what he says about going to the cinema and being beaten up for it.’
So what does Sonia think about Shaheen’s films in general?
‘They deal with everyday characters. There are no superheroes. You have workers, farmers and bakers. The lower class are real-life heroes and in his stories they always win. I think that is incredible and very important… that said, the movies themselves are not for me. I’ve never seen one in full. I actually hired a guy to watch them for me. In my film, I deliberately picked the best parts of his films.’
Afghanistan itself is still perceived by many as a dangerous place to visit. Kronlund acknowledges this, but says that there are still some ‘amazing’ times to be had there and that the people are genuinely ‘very funny’.
‘Film and cinema, and the purpose of my film, is to tell you what the purpose of making films is. This is a country [Afghanistan] were the local films aren’t very good, and it’s dangerous and the theatres are poor, so why do people go? Because cinema is a necessity. To see yourself from your city, your streets and not Los Angeles. You see your culture and history. My favourite scene is watching the faces of people watching his films and how happy they are,’ Sonia says.
The film has proven to be a success across Europe, winning awards and playing to packed out theatres, but it hasn’t travelled as well in America. Kronlund has a theory about why.
‘Americans want to see an Afghanistan about beaten women and Taliban. They don’t want dancing and fun. They don’t want the positivity or hope. We see that it’s not as bad as is in the news and some of the Taliban even watch films there. I made a couple of phone calls and easily found Taliban fighters who watch these films and were willing to talk about it.’
And what of Qurban Ali, the larger-than-life star of some of Shaheen’s films?
‘He is actually in Paris now! He came to Cannes and hasn’t gone back!’ Kronlund laughs. It sounds like that’s a story in itself, but perhaps one for another time.
The Prince of Nothingwood is cinemas nationwide from December 15