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Hidayatullah Azizi, 30, describes himself as the only film director in Kandahar. His father was a director, too; he still has the VHS cassettes they smuggled out of the country when they were fleeing the Taliban, fearing they could be killed if they were caught with forbidden materials (Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail)
Hidayatullah Azizi, 30, describes himself as the only film director in Kandahar. His father was a director, too; he still has the VHS cassettes they smuggled out of the country when they were fleeing the Taliban, fearing they could be killed if they were caught with forbidden materials (Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail)

From our 2005 archives

In a war zone, reality no longer sells Add to ...

When Hidayatullah Azizi first showed his films in public, so many people wanted to see his grainy VHS tapes that they filled the seats in Kandahar's education centre and even crowded onto the stairs at the back, fanning themselves in the stuffy heat.

Dignitaries from this southern province of Afghanistan made speeches before the film, and Mr. Azizi won applause for his lecture about how he made the two movies to illustrate the plight of Afghan refugees.

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That was October, 2002, only a year after the defeat of the Taliban, which had banned every kind of film and television. Movies were still a novelty to the people in this broken city, the former headquarters for the strict regime.

But nobody has expressed the slightest interest in Mr. Azizi's latest script, about the drug trade that is rotting Afghan society.

"People don't take an interest in reality any more," said the 30-year-old director. "They don't want Afghan movies. They want Bollywood and professional wrestling."

Blackouts, roadblocks and the constant threat of violence aren't the biggest challenges for an independent filmmaker in this dangerous region, it seems, despite the soldiers still roaming the countryside on the hunt for Taliban insurgents and the homemade bombs killing people on a regular basis.

The real problem is finding anyone who appreciates social commentary, Mr. Azizi said, amid the chaos of the new Kandahar. Vendors here sell a colourful assortment of pirated movies: Hollywood blockbusters, Bollywood musicals from India and martial-arts films from Hong Kong.

The vast majority of women in the markets still wear the traditional Islamic burqa, but under the counter many stalls also hide a stash of illegal pornographic DVDs. Behind the mud walls of the city's more comfortable homes, satellite dishes and cable television have inspired a craze for the steroid-fuelled antics of U.S. wrestling shows.

Few people in Kandahar seem to think that Vince McMahon would rig a fight, and bodybuilding clubs have sprung up as quickly as English schools, as young men strive to look and sound like their heroes.

There isn't much homegrown entertainment to balance the local media diet. A few film companies have emerged in Kabul, but Mr. Azizi says he's the only film director in Kandahar, the second-biggest city in the country. He carries a laminated identity card, stamped and signed, declaring, "Occupation: Film Director." But the truth is that he's now unemployed, and unsure when he will be able to scrape together enough money for his next film.

He's unwilling to give up the profession, however. His father was a director, one of a handful of filmmakers under the regime of communist leader Mohammad Najibullah, making films about the atrocities of the mujahedeen that have been described as either propaganda or documentaries.

Like many Afghans, they fled for Pakistan when the Taliban took over in 1996. His father took a risk by trying to save his life's work, smuggling out a cloth bag full of video cassettes despite the fact that they could have been killed if the Taliban had noticed the forbidden materials.

"My hands were shaking, because I was very afraid," Mr. Azizi said.

He spent six years saving up for his first two films, working 18-hour days as a clerk for pharmacies, plumbing stores, and carpet dealers. At night he worked on his scripts, writing about his neighbours in the slums of Quetta, Pakistan.

"I would write until 2 a.m., and cry the whole time," Mr. Azizi said. "These are sad stories, about poor children. They rummage in the garbage without any shoes, taking the scraps other people throw away. So I wept when I wrote those words."

Finally he rented a clunky Panasonic M3000 and turned the words into pictures. He did most of the work himself, with a cast of friends.

The results were amateurish but touching. Return to Homeland features Afghan orphans living in Pakistan, and shows some unnecessarily long scenes of death and mourning during its 150 minutes. His other film, Poverty, runs 80 minutes and tells a more engaging story about a boy who tries to win a school competition so his sister can have a pair of shoes.

Neither film has been released, but Mr. Azizi is patient. Afghanistan may not be ready for that kind of social realism at the moment, he said, but some day the mood will change.

"We had 25 years of war in this country. The people are very tired. They want comedy, fighting, love stories. But I don't care. My next film, if I get a chance, will be about drug smokers."

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