A lot of filmmakers like to say that making their latest movie nearly killed them. In Tarique Qayumi’s case, there is no cause for hyperbole. The Canadian-Afghan director shot his latest drama, Black Kite, covertly in Afghanistan, always trying to stay just under the radar of the Taliban. Fortunately, he was successful – even if his cast experienced one especially close brush with death near the close of production.
As Qayumi prepares for the film’s Canadian release this week, the director spoke with The Globe and Mail about coming home to danger.
You arrived in Canada in the early eighties as a refugee from Afghanistan. Has this movie been brewing in your mind since then?
The actual inception of the idea was when I was an undergraduate student at UBC. We were asked to find newspaper clippings to mine for interesting ideas. It was just after the fall of the Taliban and the start of the American invasion, around 2003, and I found this article that said the Taliban had banned kites, and I thought that had great potential. Wasn’t this ridiculous? I wrote a story and then, as things happen in school, I moved on to the next thing. Then I moved back to Afghanistan in 2011, after I got a job offer there to work at a TV station. Once I was there, I realized I wanted to shoot something there, a love letter to Afghanistan and for Afghanistan.
I have to ask, when did you become aware of Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner?
When it came out, probably in 2004, around the same time. I think that’s maybe why I shelved the story to begin with, because I was thinking of turning my story into a novella, which I never did. What I realized later on, though, was that there is not going to be the first and last story or film about kite-flying in Afghanistan. My story is a completely different one than that. And kite-flying is like baseball for Afghans. There are tons of films about baseball, and maybe there will be tons of kite-flying stories, because it’s such a huge part of the history.
It sounds like shooting this was fairly dangerous, going into the countryside and hoping that the Taliban didn’t find out what you were doing. Did you think the danger of this production outweighed the potential of the art to come out of it?
Yes. Everyone involved in the arts somehow is in danger in Afghanistan. I do feel lucky that I have my Canadian identity, and I can leave. But there’s also this aspect of sharing this story with the people there. While we were shooting, there was an attack. We were in the final days of the shoot, and [co-star Leena Alam] went to a play with her friend at the French Cultural Centre, and somebody was sitting in her seat. She said fine, and sat somewhere else, but then there was an explosion right there – this kid had snuck in a bomb. The next day, we told her, we’ll cancel the shoot, we’ll reduce your part, we understand if you don’t want to do this. And she just said no, that we have to make this because we can’t let them bully us around.
How difficult was it to maintain a low profile while shooting?
We just packed ourselves into the back of a local taxi. From the beginning, we realized that we had to not show that we’re different from anyone else. I’d always catch local cabs, and you could keep a really low profile if you just hail a cab in the morning, pack your equipment in and set off. We shot on DSLR camera, with a tiny budget and crew. You start attracting attention if you’re too big.
How connected do you feel to Afghanistan versus Canada? Do you have a sense of equal footing in both of those worlds?
I was lucky enough to come here as a refugee and keep my Afghan-ness, as well as develop a Canadian-ness. I didn’t have to give one or the other up. I do feel I’m still trying to determine my identity. When I was in Canada growing up, I felt really Afghan, but then when I went back, I realized the people didn’t accept me at first, and I felt horrible about that. But then slowly I started speaking the language better and hanging out more with locals, and I felt more adapted.
Do you hope to return to Afghanistan soon?
I’d love to go back to make another film, and I do have more ideas and stories to tell. But I would like to make something here [in Canada] first. I do completely miss everything about it. You walk down the streets of Kabul, and things haven’t changed in 2,000 years. The people, despite what they’ve been through, are entirely welcoming. I’d love to go back some day, but it was hard enough to make this film.
This interview has been condensed and edited
Black Kite opens June 1 in Toronto.