Robert Fisk: The plight of Afghani director Siddiqullah Barmak

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The Independent Online

Siddiqullah Barmak has a sense of humour. When I say that President Bill Clinton claims democracy is about dialogue, he roars with laughter. When I recall the embarrassment of a woman-belittling sheikh who admits that some women are "exceptions to the rule", he shakes helplessly.

Surprising, when you listen to Mr Barmak's story. A fiercely intelligent, independent man, he should be one of the finest film-makers in Afghanistan. But he lives in a slum with an open sewer outside his front door in a land that is not his, paying the rent by acting the part of a foolish old man in a popular Pashtu-language BBC soap opera.

His two children, Frohar and Bozourgmehr, are noisy - their shrieks are deafening in his tiny front room - but Mr Barmak's story is a cultural tragedy, the epic of a man whose expanding vision collided with the walls of his country's history. It is the story of Afghanistan, told by the son of a former police officer who from his earliest days dreamt of being not a general or a mujahedin fighter or a rich farmer, but - of all things - a filmdirector.

"When I was a child, there were three cinemas that showed Western films - the rest showed Indian movies - and so I watched Brando, Belmondo, lots of Italian comedies, all imported from Iran with Persian subtitles," he says. "At home, I used empty boxes to create movie theatres, beaming light through a hole in the box and using damaged 35mm film which I'd bought at a store in the market to show images on the wall of the box."

At the beginning of the Communist revolution in Afghanistan, there was a brief cultural freedom and Mr Barmak, at 17, found himself helping to make The Green Field, a clunker of a propaganda movie funded by the World Food Programme in which a destitute farmer had no money to marry his sweetheart - until, of course, an educated scientist introduced profitable agricultural reforms. In 1980, Mr Barmak was directing his first film on location in Afghanistan when his cameraman accidentally filmed a column of trucks driving towards the crew. They were Soviet invasion troops.

"They arrested us because they thought we were mujahedin fighters or foreigners and I wasn't able to explain for a while that we were merely making a feature film," he says. "Until that day, I never reflected on the Russian occupation. But from that moment onwards, I felt the presence of a stranger who was watching me and following me."

Mr Barmak took his revenge when he was sent to the All Soviet Cinema Institute in Moscow, a Russian film school for aspiring directors. His first film there, shot in Moscow's old quarter by an Armenian cameraman, was called The Wall and showed the efforts of a group of children to cover a black wall with white paint against the shadow of Russian army boots. Crude, assertive, brave, Mr Barmak's experimental film was immediately banned.

His second, Circle, was filmed in Kabul and focused directly on the war. Influenced by East European cinema - especially the work of the Polish director Andrei Wajda - its message was uncompromising. "While completely against the Russian occupation, I totally disapproved of the violence used to oppose it," Mr Barmak says. "In my movie, a man crosses the border to blow up a cinema but abandons his mission when he begins to search for his old home in the city. The moment he finds it, he is shot dead by his former colleagues."

Impressed into the military, Mr Barmak was ordered to guard his own film and television offices but allowed to make a documentary about disabled men and women in Afghanistan. Catastrophe of Decay told the true story of a man who loses an arm and a leg from mines laid by mujahedin guerrillas and returns to his village home only to discover that his entire family has been killed in a Russian bombardment. It was not the film the authorities expected and Mr Barmak narrowly avoided military service in Kandahar, only escaping to Ahmed Shah Massoud's forces in northern Afghanistan to make films for him.

Returning to Kabul, Mr Barmak was, very briefly, made manager of the Afghan film industry. Under the first mujahedin government, Mr Barmak made a critical mistake. He told a BBC interviewer that if he was to make a film depicting life in Afghanistan 30 years earlier, he would show women in mini-skirts and men drinking. He wanted to portray reality. It was not a truth the mujahedin understood. Mr Barmak was arrested, questioned, his house searched. Then the Taliban arrived. "At one point, two Taliban men were arguing in front of me, one saying I should be executed at once." After 10 days, he escaped to Pakistan.

And here he now waits and reads and manages a small archive of books for an Afghan charity and earns his pittance on the BBC soap opera, writing the occasional local newspaper report to earn the £40 he needs to rent his slum home.

"I am not overwhelmed by this," he says. "You must live." Then in English, he repeats the phrase with the emphasis on the second word. "You must live." He pauses. "You know? I love the sound of the camera." Tough guy, Mr Barmak.