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Sahraa Karimi: The world has to know other stories from Afghanistan

May 12, 2020
topic:Women's rights
tags:#women's rights, #migration, #Europe, #education, #Taliban
located:Afghanistan, Slovakia, Iran
by:Magdalena Rojo
She searched for a better place to live twice. While her family stayed in war-torn Afghanistan or emigrated to Canada, Sahraa Karimi made her way to Iran and later on, Slovakia to continue her studies, alone. The thirty-five-year-old Afghan movie director tells the stories of women from her country and has received various awards at festivals around the world. In May, she celebrates her first year as the first female chairperson of the Afghan Film Organisation.

FairPlanet: You were born in Afghanistan, spent your adolescence in Iran. Then you applied for asylum in Slovakia and lived there for about twelve years before returning to your country of origin. Where is home?

Sahraa Karimi: It is complicated. I would call all three places my home. I was born here, in Afghanistan. I grew up and learnt about movies in Iran. But I also love going back to Slovakia. I know it there very well. I always follow what is happening in the country and I go back a few times a year.

What was your childhood in Afghanistan like?

During the war, there were not many activities we could do. The Taliban closed down cinemas, we were not allowed to go for trips. They even prohibited watching television. But stories were always present in my family. My mom studied literature and she was a great storyteller. She was always telling stories with so many details. We also had a lot of books at home and I loved reading. I was very curious, always coming up with different ideas and when something happened, I was searching for different perspectives to have a look at it. Those were some hints that I did have talent for storytelling.

However, you had to stop studying when the Taliban closed down the schools.

My father was a professor and a very open-minded man who had also studied outside of Afghanistan. He never discriminated against me as it is common in Afghanistan when it comes to girls' education. My father kept on teaching me at home for two years. It gave me an opportunity to get to know him better, not only as a teacher or a father, but as a person who values education and wants his children to find their place in this world. At the end, he decided to send me to Iran to finish my studies. My uncle lived in Tehran during those times.

Apart from finishing high school, in Iran you also got a chance to play a role in a movie that was later on recognised at the International Film Festival in Bratislava. That is how you made it to Slovakia. Why did you decide to stay?

In Iran, immigrants did not have many opportunities, I felt limited there. I felt that this was the only way to get out of Iran. My plan was to go to Germany where I had family but it turned out to be more complicated so I applied for asylum in Slovakia. It took eight months till they granted me international protection. I was seventeen, the time to apply for university. When they asked me what I wanted to study, I said: Film. I was told many times I would not make it through the entrance exams. They were accepting 6 people for directing. I did not even speak English properly. But I thought to myself: nothing is impossible. I started studying Slovak, art and film history. With the help of some Slovaks that I was lucky to have met, I made it to the university and stayed, studying for nine years.

How was your decision to go back to Afghanistan made?

In Slovakia, I had freedom to finish my studies and that meant everything to me. It was back in 2012 and I was sitting with my classmates in a school buffet and we were asking ourselves: What are we going to do now? Should I stay in Slovakia, teach at the university and make movies about migration? Or should I accept the risk of returning back to Afghanistan and start from the very beginning but with a perspective of being a storyteller of the stories of my people? There are many good directors in Slovakia that make movies about stories from here. I did not have any experience shooting about World War II or communism. I felt that stories of Afghan women and the concept of patriarchal society were more important to me. I made a decision. I wanted to contribute to change in Afghanistan but it was impossible if I stayed so far away. It was not an easy decision to make but I love Afghanistan and I feel capable of making change in regards to women rights in my country.

You have already proven your capability when you became the first female chairperson of the Afghan Film Organisation. What was your motivation to apply for this position?

I was making a movie in Afghanistan and I had to go apply for permissions in this organisation. I found a destroyed office, unreliable people, a lot of bureaucracy. I did not like it. I finished my film anyway, thanks to my stubbornness. But imagine how many people who also want to make films gave up on their ideas because of similar experiences in the Afghan film industry! I decided to apply for a chairperson's position to support other artists, to make sure Afghans can watch movies made in Afghanistan, in our cinemas. At the entrance interview, it was me and four other men. I passed three exams and a two hour long interview.

What were the first things you did as a chairperson?

When I entered the office, employees did not even have e-mail addresses! The archive was destroyed due to Taliban rule. We built up the archive. We employed a young generation of people. And we organised an Afghan film festival. In 2019 Afghanistan celebrated 100 years since its creation so we were screening one hundred movies from our history to make people aware that we have always had cinema in Afghanistan; we were making movies but the war destroyed it all. Now we have to go back to this art, go back to the cinema, buy tickets. We are going to continue with the festival this year. We also made the whole process of getting permission for movie-making easier. I am a movie director, I know what helps making things for others easier.

Your movie Hava, Maryam, Ayesha was sent to the Academy Awards to represent Afghanistan this year. The way you portray Afghan women is as if they were women from any other peaceful state, not the one that has been in war for decades.

Everybody says my way of filming is very Central European. It makes me happy when somebody recognises that. We have to change the view the world has of Afghanistan. Everybody talks about lack of education or job opportunities for girls and women. But the truth is that a lot of women go through very different issues and they are the same issues like many other women across the world face, for example pregnancy, divorce. Nobody points at these events, media usually search for clichés. The story I told offered a new view on women. The world has to know other stories from Afghanistan.

How much is this view of yours influenced by your personal story that evolves in two different continents?

I was educated in an European way of thinking. I gained my emancipation in my family where everybody was always supportive as well as from the freedom and independence that I found in Slovakia. If I had stayed only in Afghanistan or Iran I would not have been the same person I am today. The way I behave, the way I do things, it is all a consequence of me growing up in Slovakia.

Article written by:
Magdalena Rojo
Afghanistan Slovakia Iran
Embed from Getty Images
"Taliban closed down cinemas, we were not allowed to go for trips. They even prohibited watching television."
Embed from Getty Images
"My father never discriminated me against my brothers as it is common in Afghanistan when it comes to girls' education."
Embed from Getty Images
"In 2019 Afghanistan celebrated 100 years since its inception so we were screening one hundred movies from our history to make people aware that we have always had cinema in Afghanistan."
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