From persecution to adulation, the new face of Afghan cinema

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The Independent Online

Two years ago, Marina Gulbahari was a street urchin begging for scraps from the tables of Kabul restaurants. If she was lucky, she might get a few crumpled notes or kebab leftovers wrapped in nan. If she was unlucky, the black-turbaned Taliban police would beat her. That was before she became the biggest name in Afghan cinema.

Now, after a stunning performance in last year's critically acclaimed film Osama , Marina, aged 14, has become the face of Afghanistan's resurgent film industry at foreign film festivals, hailed as a precociously talented actress with an exciting future whose natural ability is drawn from her traumatic upbringing amid war and turmoil.

Her emergence is the most extraordinary story of Kabul's film-making renaissance. From being persecuted by the Taliban, who burnt all the film stock they could, directors are again making movies. A new generation desperately short of cash and equipment but not of enthusiasm is buzzing with projects and ideas, determined to create a uniquely Afghan creative film genre.

The young directors and producers hang about in the shrapnel-damaged Afghan Film building, where Marina's awards take pride of place on display in the foyer beside awards from Soviet and North Korean film festivals and a 1968 award for a documentary on nomads. Projects include a civil war drama about a man's search for his brother through Afghanistan's hellish coal mines to tell him that the rest of the family has been died in fighting, a black comedy about opium smuggling with an anti-drugs message and Bollywood-style dance routines, and a remake of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment set in Kabul.

Osama is about a girl's attempts to survive the fundamentalist madness of the Taliban by pretending to be a boy so she can earn money for her family. Marina's sweetly innocent face has become so well known in Kabul that she can no longer venture on the street without being mobbed.

"I like being famous," she says with a giggle. "It is much better than being a beggar. That was a very shameful time for me."

For Marina, her fairy-tale came true when she begged for food at the table of Siddiq Barmak, a famous director who has for years made highly praised films on war-damaged sets with antiquated Soviet equipment.

He was trying to find a child to cast in his film and was struck by the beggar girl's charisma. With no drama training, she proved a natural, drawing on her own painful experiences. Two of her older sisters had been killed in a rocket attack, then, as her family sank into desperate poverty, she was forced to endure the humiliation of begging in the streets.

The only film she had ever seen was Titanic, an unlikely bootleg video hit which captured the imagination of Afghans. "I liked the sinking scene," Marina says. Like other Afghans, she saw the parallels with her own country's fate under the Taliban.

"Osama was a great film," she says. "I am so happy I was part of it. It told the world the truth about the Taliban. Now I want to be Afghanistan's best actress, then Afghanistan's most famous director. Anything is possible for women now."

Her film career has enabled her to buy a modest house for her parents - her father sells Bollywood music tapes on the street - and nine brothers and sisters. It has also allowed her to swap her rags for nice clothes and pay for the education she missed because the Taliban banned her from school.

The downside is a fear of Taliban revenge. "I worry about them seeing me in the street and killing me. They may recognise me from the film."