Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Black Tulips": A Story of Love and Courage from War-Weary Afghanistan

Over 400 members of interfaith community of Los Angeles, along with dignitaries from Afghanistan and elsewhere, gathered at the Museum of Tolerance to view the movie “Black Tulip” by Afghan film-maker Sonia Nassery Cole. This film is the official submission from Afghanistan to the Academy Awards so this screening in Los Angeles was an important event. The film was also screened in Kabul, an extremely dangerous venue. Afghanistan once had a thriving film industry, but the Taliban closed it down. Since this film is highly critical of the Taliban, screening the film in Kabul took a lot of chutzpah. Ms. Cole was advised by General Petraeus not to screen this film in this venue, but she was determined to do so.

If an award were given for courage, Ms. Cole would certainly deserve it. “Black Tulips” was filmed in Afghanistan under extremely dangerous and trying conditions, something that the makers of “Kate Runner” didn’t have the audacity to do. (That movie was filmed in China.) As “Black Tulips” was being shot, bombs were exploding in the streets near their hotel and several camera and crew members went home, afraid for their lives. Neither these defections nor daily death threats nor rampant corruption deterred the irrepressible Ms. Cole.

“Come hell, come shine, I was going to make this movie,” she said.

Ms. Cole also deserves kudos for her inspiring portrayal of Afghan women. They are presented as intelligent, courageous, compassionate and extraordinarily beautiful. When I told this to my Afghan woman friend, she replied, “Of course, she was just being accurate.”

The plot involves an Afghan woman named Farishta who, along with her reluctant but supportive husband, opens up a restaurant called “The Poet’s Corner” where patrons are free to voice their opinions and feelings via an open mike. Many speak out again the Taliban, and this of course leads to trouble.

The film is visually powerful and captures the beauty of Afghan life and landscape in a way I have never before seen on film.

Ms. Cole, 45, is a woman of many talents and gifts--a true visionary whose work springs from a deep spiritual base. In addition to directing the film and writing the screenplay, she plays the leading role. The film is partly based on her own experiences. She knows first-hand the cruelty of the Russians since she was forced to flee to the U.S. after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. She was also harassed by the Taliban during her filming of the movie.

Ms Cole is not only a film maker but a humanitarian. As noted in her bio, she “created the Afghanistan World Foundation, which supports the economic and social development of her home country. Cole then made The Breadwinner, a short documentary about a day in the life of a nine-year old Afghan boy, Farouk, who supports his parents and siblings.”

I was deeply impressed and moved by The Black Tulip, and even more impressed by the film maker herself who was present for Q and A and shared the story of how her film was made. That story is so interesting it deserves to be made into a documentary.

I did not find the film entirely satisfying, however. As a peace activist, I was concerned that it presented a distorted view of what is happening in Afghanistan--one that could help imperialistic Americans to justify the "Long War"--the 50-year war that the military is planning in order to "tame" the Muslim world and make it safe for American interests.

A big red flag for me was the movie's idealized portrayal of American soldiers. They are not only benevolent, but also heroic. They totally supported the "Poet's Corner" restaurant--symbol of Afghan freedom. When the owners' daughter is abducted, the American soldiers bravely rescue her.

There is no hint that American soldiers ever do anything that cause the death of innocent Afghan or do anything that might provoke a backlash or an insurgency.

If American soldiers are so benign, why did a recent poll show that 55% of Afghans want them to leave? In the Q and A, Ms. Cole was challenged by a woman leader of the Afghan community and asked about the presence of 150,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan. Ms. Cole responded that most American soldiers don't understand or mingle with the Afghan people very much, that the killing of Afghan civilians by American soldiers is a big problem, and that there should be fewer soldiers and more humanitarian projects. In other words, what Ms. Cole says in person is the opposite of what the movie suggests and very close to what many of us in the peace movement are saying.

The movie also glosses over the corruption that is endemic in Afghanistan. At one point in the film, a mild-mannered government official shows up at the restaurant to offer "protection" and Faristhta offers him a whiskey and free meals. The official smiles and is satisfied with this token gift and eventually becomes a close friend of the family. The reality of corruption is much uglier and more sinister, as Ms. Cole herself revealed in the Q and A. Just as she was about to leave the country, the management of the hotel where she was staying demanded $38,000 in extortion and confiscated her passport until she paid up. All she had in the bank was enough money to pay the extortion money required to take her expensive equipment through customs out of Afghanistan--another $40,000. It is only through the miraculous intervention of a rich Afghan "angel" who offered her $58,000 in cash that Ms. Cole was able to leave the country with her film.

Nowhere in the film is it suggested that this kind of corruption might lead Afghans to turn against the Karzai/American government and join the insurgents.

Finally, the Taliban are presented as the embodiment of evil. Treacherous, cowardly, greedy, and fanatical, they are without a single redeeming trait or quality. No effort is made to explain why some Afghans have become such vile creatures. At the risk of spoiling the ending of the film, let me say that the film perpetuates what theologian Walter Wink calls "the myth of redemptive violence."

This Good vs. Evil scenario is one that may play well in America since it reinforces our cowboy mentality, but it doesn't help us to understand why some Afghans become Taliban, or why the Afghans want us to leave their country. Recent polls show the a majority of Afghans want US forces to leave, 85% feel the Afghan police are corrupt and untrustworthy, and most think badly of the Taliban. In other words, Afghans don't have good options. But a vast majority agree that the fighting needs to stop and there needs to a negotiated settlement that includes the Taliban. Polls are not infallible, of course, and public opinion constantly shifts, but it is worth noting what the latest polls suggest that Afghans are tired of war and want a settlement:

While human rights organizations and women’s advocacy groups mount a spirited
campaign against any accommodation with the Taliban, 73 percent of those [Afghans] polled said it was time to negotiate with the insurgents. While the Taliban do not enjoy much popularity in the country — only 9 percent said they would prefer them to the current government — it seems that the appetite for conflict has waned among Afghans, who mainly just want to get on with their lives.

"Black Tulips" is a well-intentioned effort to promote the views shared by many in the human rights and women's advocacy movement, namely, that there is no way to reach an accord with the Taliban and therefore we need to fight them to the bitter end. This attitude is understandable, given the horrendous behavior of the Taliban, but such intransigence will probably not help bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

Peace generally comes about when all parties--including those that feel the need to resort to violence and terrorism--see an advantage to coming together and working out a compromise solution. Bringing about a negotiated settlement will not be easy, but the alternative is never-ending war, as the British and Russian empire learned when it attempted to "tame" Afghanistan.

And as many Afghan women have learned, war is never good for women, children, and other living creatures.

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