After winning a string of awards, including the Sydney Film Festival Audience Award and best documentary at the Canberra Film Festival, Amin Palangi is bringing Love Marriage in Kabul to BBFF2015 audiences.
The documentary centres on Australian-based Mahboba Rawi’s struggle to keep her charities in Afghanistan afloat, as well as her latest project: to secure a love marriage for former beneficiary Abdul. BBFF’s Kristie Hedley spoke with Amin about the film:
In 2006 you made your first film in Afghanistan, Hidden Kingdom: a short documentary about the self-immolation of women. What motivated and inspired you to go back and make Love Marriage in Kabul?
That film was my introduction to the country. The reason I wanted to make another film in Afghanistan was rooted in that, because I felt a responsibility after the film was screened. I had created a film that in fact added to the stereotypes of the country. Then, I was fortunate to meet Mahboba, and as intriguing as she was, I just wanted to make a film that went beyond the welfare aspect of her work.
She herself has the character that challenges a lot of stereotypes I think, and in fact it challenged a lot of my own prejudices. Like I said, I was born in Iran, so I have an understanding of that culture. I guess growing up outside of Iran for most of my life it’s easy to get caught up in the mainstream definitions of women, and when you hang around her [Mahboba] enough you realise that she’s much more of a man than a man is, traditionally or patriarchally speaking.
I believe there was quite a gap between first meeting Mahboba and embarking on Love Marriage. Why the delay?
There are certain things that are undeniable [in Afghanistan]. If someone says that women and men are equal in the country, or I would say anywhere in the world, I find it hard to believe. We live in a patriarchal world and in some countries that’s much more highlighted and evident than in others. It’s like when we hear there is a female parliament member in Afghanistan, it sort of blows your mind away. So to have somebody like Mahboba operating at the level she does, I mean alone that’s an amazing story. At the time I was following her, I was there as a fictional writer. I was very much learning the craft of the dramatic and I wanted to do a character driven story without really manipulating reality. So it was a matter of just following her around and just waiting for the right story and I think that it took three years, until one day she said that she’s going back and she’s going to attend a wedding. We weren’t really sure what’s going to happen and I was not very clear on the details, she was just saying you should come, and well, me and Sanaz, my wife, we used up our savings to do it.
That was such a leap of faith: to use up all your savings and go to Afghanistan to make this film. Was it Mahboba’s force-of-nature character that gave you the faith to do that?
Like you just said, I think it’s just faith in the universe. It was a leap of faith and I had finished my Masters by then and I just wanted to make something. I believe that the faith comes in the work, in the doing, and at the time that was very much present in my mind. I think about it even now, to go back to Afghanistan to do another film I’m completely fearful. Every time you go you’ve gotta be aware of security, you know your life is in danger etc etc. I believe that if you do what is needed the universe will help you.
In regards to that aspect of potential dangers, when it comes up in the film, Mahboba says ‘the best security is God: we don’t need guns’. Do you have the same belief or approach?
I have to say I agree with Mahboba. It’s better to blend in. I wore Afghani clothes. You don’t wanna be walking around with bodyguards. Firstly, you can’t make a film that way. Secondly, it actually draws a lot of unwanted attention. I mean we got stopped quite a lot, I was in jail for half a day [during the making of the last film]. During this film I almost got shot. Things like that just happen. You just move on.
Well at least it was an ‘almost’.
Well at least I wasn’t shot [laughs].
One of Mahboba’s favourite expressions in the film is ‘that’s the Afghani way’. Did the Afghani way pose challenges to filming?
[Laughs]. Mahboba is challenging, let me be honest. I mean she does what she wants. In terms of technicalities, my previous trip helped me quite a lot, and to actually be married, and to actually have a female partner with you [Amiti’s wife Sanaz co-produced] is very important. It made people trust me and allow me into their home. Women were a lot more comfortable when I was meeting with them. And apart from security, which I think we bypassed quite well, the key was just to keep things very very simple. Most of the time it was just me, or just me and Sanaz, because before we went there I was a bit worried people would notice the camera a bit too much. I wanted to have more of an observational documentary. Not necessarily fly-on-the-wall type, more like fly-in-the-soup.
You’re a migrant yourself, born in Iran. Is that part of why you want to make films in that part of the world?
I guess it’s about you trying to find your own identity. I wanted to serve my purpose, do what I could do to show the culture to other people. To honour it and understand it, because through understanding it you understand yourself.
You and Sanaz have established the Persian Film Festival, now in its fourth year. What was it that drove that? Did you feel Australia as a multicultural society was not representing that in its films?
Like the film, a lot of it was personal. First of all, Iran has an extraordinary cinema, famous internationally. I mean, two days ago the Berlin Golden Bear went to another Iranian film [Taxi] by Jafar Panahi. The fact that there was no festival for Iranian cinema was quite mind-blowing, so I wanted to do something like that. The other reason is a lot more personal. The fact that I’m a migrant, I wanted to have something that belonged to the community and empowered the community. I also wanted to organise a program that represents the more diverse stories, not necessarily positive, but diverse stories that we don’t hear in mainstream media. That gets tiring after a while when we hear the same notes playing. If it was music, we would really have bad nervous systems. I mean, a country with 80 million people, with thousands of years of history, there would be a lot of diversity. And to showcase some films that don’t actually get released in Iran. I wanted to be a platform for filmmakers like myself who are young and want to present independent work in Iran, as well as for those who live abroad too. And to add to the multicultural flavour of Australia. Across Australia we are about 80,000 people and in Sydney alone about 40,000 Iranians and about 80,000 Persian-speaking including Afghanis, so you’ve got a huge community and I think it’s our responsibility to present ourselves to our new country.
As much as this film is a love story and also focuses on Mahboba’s charity work, you didn’t shy away from showing the challenges facing Afghanis, for example, children begging on the street. Was that a very conscious decision of yours, to not sugar-coat things?
Yes, a lot of it’s because of context, because again I’m monitoring my own energy when I’m making the film and in editing. I was a witness in the Hope House, and life is amazing, you know for these kids. They receive education, they receive welfare. The amazing thing that Mahboba does there, is they’re not just getting welfare because she’s very much educating them to be the leaders of the future and I strongly believe in that because when you speak to them you realise they’re full of confidence. I mean both boys and girls, the girls even more to be honest, they probably follow her [Mahboba]. They are quite outspoken, they’re opinionated, they’re confident and that is very important. That is not what you see outside of Hope House. I wanted to show how extraordinary the change is, the importance of her work, because outside of Hope House that’s what life is for these kids. I don’t want to just show the positives, If something is happening, we need to deal with it and sort it out. We cannot just shy away from it and continue having our sense of pride in our Persian Empire, you know because those times have past, we’re living now and I’m more of a realist than an idealist in that sense.
Have you had an opportunity to hear audience’s reaction to Love Marriage in Kabul? What has it been like?
Yes, in fact three days ago someone wrote a poem in response to the film. What makes me most happy is the reaction of the audience. A lot of the feedback is they have never seen stories like that coming out of Afghanistan and it gave them a very different glimpse of the country in a balanced way, as I intended. And a lot of the audience have continued supporting Mahboba’s Promise (the charity) and I feel very very happy about that. For me, on a personal level, it has achieved a lot of milestones. Mahboba’s work is continuing. I only showed a month of work. Years have passed and the work is still continuing and she’s at the centre of it, and what I really hope is that the film could somehow contribute to her work. They’re very much an Australian organisation and run by Australian money, and without our support everything will fall apart.
You must be immensely proud then?
To be honest we’ve had sold-out screenings at every festival and I’m just completely blown away by that because when I look at the program I see so many great films.
I want to also say none of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for our team: if Pat didn’t agree to take on this film [as producer], if Bill Russo wasn’t working on the edit, and if Michael Gissing didn’t produce this amazing sound design. They all have contributed immensely. I don’t want to take the credit myself. And of course last but not least, Sanaz, my wife. Without her this really would not have been possible, the way it has. I don’t want to take the credit for myself; it was a collaborative work from everyone. I believe the results of the collaborative work are much greater than what I would have been able to make on my own, ever.
So will we see you at the festival?
Yes, definitely. I always sit in the screening because I love to see how people react to the humour or to the energy that we’ve tried to create. I also will be on the panel at a workshop.
Love Marriage in Kabul screens at BBFF2105, Murwillumbah Regent Cinema, Sunday, March 8 at 2pm. Amin Palangi will be there to present his film.