In the current release , James Franco celebrates the tale of Tommy Wiseau, who realised his dream of getting a movie made when all the odds were apparently against him. Yet Wiseau made his 2003 “disasterpiece” with seemingly endless financial resources, in the heart of Hollywood, where all the perks and luxuries of modern cinema were available to him and his crew. Would he have been able to pull it off if he’d been shooting on the fly in war-torn surroundings with nothing but his belief in the power of B-movies to see him through?
Meet Salim Shaheen, the “most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan” (which he laughingly calls “Nothingwood!”), who has made and distributed more than a hundred movies, working on shoestring budgets, undeterred by rocket attacks, riots or religious fundamentalism. As he embarked on his 111th feature (or perhaps 114th – he seems to be making at least four films simultaneously), first-time feature director decided to join him, travelling from Kabul to Bamiyan to see if she had “missed something” in her previous reports from the region for French public radio and TV. How could a land so riven with strife have provided the backdrop for such prolific creativity?
Many of the crew are war veterans who have no qualms about using live ammunition on set
Shot on handheld digital cameras and packed with sub-Bollywood action, comedy and lip-synced song-and-dance numbers, Shaheen’s films have a DIY quality, like the “sweded” epics of Michel Gondry’s . He clearly sees himself as a latter-day Rambo, telling stories in which he casts himself as an avenging hero – strong, bold, and macho to a fault. When Shaheen tells Kronlund “You are a man!”, he means it as the highest possible compliment – an endorsement of her ability to follow him on his film-making adventures in a world where women are notable by their absence. By contrast, actor Qurban Ali is a bundle of camp charisma who cross-dresses to play female roles, including that of Shaheen’s mum (their latest romp has an autobiographical theme). Together, Ali and Shaheen make odd-couple magic; one embodying the macho stereotype to which this culture clings, the other hiding in plain sight as an outrageous caricature whose wife and family roll their eyes at his outre public persona.
Like Shaheen, many of the crew on these mini-epics are war veterans who carry a camera and a Kalashnikov with equal ease, and have no qualms about using live ammunition on set. When Kronlund asks if the area they’re travelling to might have landmines, everyone simply shrugs as if to say, “So what?” These intrepid film-makers seem to accept that what they are doing really is a matter of life and death – a truth illustrated by horrifying footage of the aftermath of a civil war rocket attack which struck his film set in 1995. As Kronlund , “These guys are true, genuine lovers of the cinema – they would really risk their lives.”
Saba Sahar: 'Afghan women are capable of doing anything men do'
As a child, Shaheen would sneak into movie theatres – a habit his family attempted to beat out of him. The lessons he learned from cinema served him well in later life; he tells Kronlund that he once survived an attack on his army unit by playing dead among real corpses – a trick he’d seen on screen. As for his own movies, they clearly strike a chord with domestic audiences, telling stories about the triumph of the underdog which lend a brave face to people unrepresented elsewhere. In one eye-opening interview, Kronlund learns that black-market copies of Shaheen’s film have popular cache even among members of the Taliban.
Shaheen has been called “the Afghan Ed Wood”, and it’s tempting to look for mockery in this portrayal of his cheap-and-cheerful output. Yet Kronlund finds something more substantial to build her film on – a genuine admiration for Shaheen’s dedication to making movies, and a warm sense of wonder at his almost childlike belief in the transcendent power of the moving image. once told me that all he wanted to be was “a good soldier – a soldier for cinema”. On the evidence of this film, that’s a description tailor-made for Shaheen.