It has been just over a year since Sahraa Karimi had to flee her home in Kabul as the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital, but even in exile, the award-winning director says she will continue to make films against the political group.
The Taliban want to stifle Afghanistan’s culture and shape it in the way they see fit, she says. While artists who are still living in the country are unable to continue their work openly under the repressive government, Afghan artists abroad have a duty to ensure that the country’s culture is thriving.
Karimi, who was the first chairwoman of the Afghan Film Organisation, will be discussing the issue at the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi, alongside a panel that includes Omaid Sharifi, president of the Afghan activist art collective ArtLords, and whirling dancer Fahima Mirzaei.
“When you’re an artist from a country like Afghanistan, you are not just an artist, you are an activist,” she says. “Through your art, you are advocating freedom, for justice and human rights.
“Afghanistan is not a good environment for artists to live in right now. Artists are in danger of being killed,” she says. “There is a risk of being arrested or disappearing. A majority of artists left Afghanistan and are in different countries and continents. They are facing issues related to exile and immigration. They are trying to integrate into a new culture, a new country. This is not easy. But we also cannot forget the importance of art and culture.”
Karimi did not always live in Afghanistan, and she says adjusting to life in Europe was not as jarring for her as it was for many of her compatriots. She was born and raised in Iran and studied film in Slovakia before deciding to move to her native country a decade ago. She says she felt invested in Afghanistan and wanted to be witness to “everything happening in Kabul” and tell the city’s stories on film.
Most of Karimi’s works are dedicated to telling stories of Afghan women.
She released her debut feature Afghan Women Behind the Wheel in 2009. The documentary reflects upon the issue of personal freedom for women in connection with getting a driving licence. The film features interviews with Afghan women of different ages and backgrounds. It won the Women Filmmakers Section Award for Best Documentary at the Dhaka International Film Festival in 2014.
Karimi’s next hard-hitter was Parlika in 2016. The documentary examined the life of Suraya Parlika, one of the few Afghan women to become involved in the country’s politics. The film shows how the status of women changes as Afghanistan transitions from Taliban theocracy to a democratic country.
Her 2019 film Hava, Maryam, Ayesha, meanwhile, was the Afghan entry for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. Karimi’s only fiction feature to date, it tells the story of three pregnant women from different social backgrounds in Kabul. It had its world premiere at the 76th Venice Film Festival and won the Jury Prize at the 2021 Tasveer South Asian Film Festival.
Karimi says that much of the fuel for her work comes from observing and interacting with the women of her society. While she's still intent on putting the spotlight on Afghan women in film, she has now shifted her perspective to the life of Afghan women in exile.
“I started to look deeply into the life of Afghan refugees, and especially Afghan women in Europe and the Mediterranean. My stories are all about women. Women and their relationships, whether with themselves or their family or marriage.
“I told myself that my protagonists are here also, in Europe and outside of Afghanistan. I knew I had to go and find out more about what was happening with them.”
To begin generating creative work again after having to uproot her whole life was not easy, but it was, Karimi says, the best way she knew to help herself.
“The trauma I went through was not an easy trauma, it was very complicated, but I decided to help myself with writing and creating,” she says. “I decided to write down stories again. I went to people and asked to collaborate, for support. I wrote essays, did research on women in the film industry. It was a new challenge, but I did it.”
Karimi, who currently lives in Italy, regularly takes part in international conferences and film festivals to highlight how art, and cinema, is a form of resistance.
“I didn’t want to be silent against the Taliban, against their brutality,” she says. “I went to summits, events and conferences, trying to be a loud voice for our artists, our female artists, our women and our culture.”
Karimi currently has two films in the works, both of which she began writing after leaving Afghanistan. One of them, she says, is another work of fiction based on her own experiences leaving Kabul.
She had been in an hours-long queue to withdraw money from the bank when Taliban forces began attacking the city in August last year following the withdrawal of US forces. Panic swept Kabul and the filmmaker ran in fear, streaming the moment on Instagram. In the video, she says the militants are coming to “kill us”.
“The Taliban entered Kabul, unfortunately, and we were detained,” she says tearfully. “Pray for us.”
The video went viral hours after Karimi posted it, amassing millions of views in a matter of days.
“It was a habit of mine to go live on my Instagram, but it was also an opportunity,” she says. “It was August, and the world was in holiday season, and I thought whether they knew what was happening in Afghanistan right now. So as a filmmaker, it was my duty.”
Karimi didn't know how far-reaching her Instagram post was until days later. The only thing that mattered at that point was how to get her family out of Afghanistan, which they would eventually manage to do via a Turkish Airlines flight to Ukraine.
“I returned to my Instagram a few days later because we were solving the issue of how to get out of the country. I was shocked to see that more than 10 million had watched it,” she says. “As a filmmaker, I did my part.”
When they took over Afghanistan, the Taliban had promised a more lenient governing style compared to when they ruled the country from 1996 until the US invasion in 2001. However, the group’s actions in the past year, particularly their treatment of women, have shown that their rule is becoming as repressive as many predicted it would be. Girls are barred from attending secondary school, and women are required to cover their faces in public and be accompanied by a male chaperone. Artists and activists are also in danger, with Karimi saying she’d have likely been killed if she stayed behind.
“I was forced to leave. I didn’t want to leave but I didn’t have any choice. If I had stayed, they’d have come to arrest me, put me in jail and find an excuse to kill me. My brother is with me, as are his children, his daughters of different ages. Even before the takeover, I was a loud voice against the Taliban. If I left alone, they’d have gone after him. The situation is difficult.”