Director aims to create new cinema for Afghanistan

A bold new drama exposing social taboos in Kabul is in the running for one of the top prizes at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Wajma tells the story of a girl who is charmed by an outgoing waiter. Courtesy Sundance Film Festival
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Barmak Akram feels quite at home in the Utah mountains. Although they're set higher than those in his native Afghanistan, the elevation, crisp-cold climate and sweeping desert landscape feel very familiar, he says.

The writer-director is at Sundance to promote his new drama, Wajma (An Afghan Love Story), which had its world premiere at the festival on Sunday. The tale is of an outgoing waiter named Mustafa who charms the eponymous student. A clandestine relationship soon develops and when Wajma becomes pregnant, she naturally assumes Mustafa will do right by her. Little can prepare her for the cruelty she faces at home, when her confidence falters.

Barmak, who was born in Kabul and educated in France (where he still lives, in Paris), wanted to throw a spotlight on women's rights in his native country, which, until 10 years ago, were not even recognised.

"It's a taboo subject," he says. "And, although I got the permit to shoot in Kabul after submitting a synopsis, I didn't, couldn't, say anything about the subject. I said we were making a documentary. Otherwise, we wouldn't have got it made."

Akram was originally planning a fact-based drama set in Romania, entitled Feroza, which had to be put on hold for budgetary reasons. He hopes the success of Wajma will allow him to revive it when he returns home after the festival wraps this weekend.

"I want to create a new style for film, a new cinema concept for Afghanistan that mixes cultures and develops something new," the filmmaker, musician and composer says. "The aural tradition that is very prevalent in Afghanistan, I want to create a new concept out of that for cinema."

As for how Kabul looks now compared to in 1996, when Barmak last tried to shoot a feature, only to be shut down by the Taliban, the 46-year-old says some things have changed for the better.

"The technological leap has helped quite a bit," he says.

"You know, they don't have landline phones but they have mobiles. I've seen farmers, even a beggar with a cell phone in Kabul, which is incredible. The infrastructure still isn't there - I had to shoot the film myself, with the actors doubling as crew. But it's come a long way over the past 10 years."

Wajma (An Afghan Love Story) is screening at Sundance this week and is in the festival's official competition for world dramatic cinema. The winner will be announced Saturday