Hope and heartbreak as Canadian Afghan filmmakers monitor developments in Kabul

Exhausted and heartbroken, Canadian filmmakers who've spent years working in Afghanistan are now trying to help friends leave as they reconcile what is happening with the Afghanistan they knew.

Frustration mounts as filmmakers try to help friends they worked with escape

Afghan filmmakers on what's happening in Afghanistan

2 years ago
Duration 2:34
CBC's Eli Glasner spoke with Canadian Afghan directors Tarique Qayumi and Ariel Nasr about watching what's happening inside Afghanistan.

For Canadian Afghan filmmakers working to help friends trapped inside the war-torn country, days are now a blur of heartbreak, exhaustion and concern. The messages and queries keep coming while they write letters and send emails, to try and help the Afghans they worked with apply for asylum in Canada. 

After being smuggled out of Afghanistan in a truck, Tarique Qayumi came to Canada as a young child. The Vancouver filmmaker returned to spend four years at Afghanistan's largest television station, where he said he worked alongside a fresh generation of Afghans. 

"All these young, energetic, cosmopolitan, talented people who are the brains of the country right now in the media industry — and they're all looking to leave right now," he said. 

Canadian Afghan director Tarique Qayumi is shown with actors on the set of a police drama outside Kabul. Qayumi spent four years in Afghanistan, meeting many journalists and filmmakers he is now trying to assist as they seek to flee the country after it fell to the Taliban. (Joel van Houdt)

With Canada and the United States opening the visa process to journalists, Qayumi said he's now writing letters of recommendations, explaining "how good they were at their job and how we'd be lucky to have them." 

He's also checking in on his friends in Afghanistan via social media; everyone is scared about what comes next, he said.

Qayumi is no stranger to fear. In 2017, his movie Black Kite premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It tells the tale of a family weathering decades of turmoil and trauma in Kabul. During filming, the cast contended with suicide bombings and fears of being captured by the Taliban.

Now those same nightmares have become reality for his former colleagues, he said.

"When they are in their homes at night, they know that any knock on the door — or any time [they] hear a noise — could be the Taliban coming for them. That way is no way to live." 

Drawn to the paradox of Afghanistan

Director Ariel Nasr is on set with crew in 2018, filming The Forbidden Reel, a documentary about how Afghan filmmakers created a national cinema while under threat from the Taliban. (Loaded Pictures/NFB)

Born in Halifax and now based in Montreal, Canadian filmmaker Ariel Nasr also has a strong connection to Afghanistan. His father was born there and Nasr has visited many times to film documentaries, including titles about female boxers and the secret history of Afghan cinema hidden from the Taliban.

What draws him back, he said, is the bond between the people. "They are incredibly gentle and kind — and that's a kind of paradox of what you see as the kind of image of an Afghan and what the Afghan people actually are."

His 2012 film The Boxing Girls of Kabul captures that kindness, but also a sense of defiance from a group of young women challenging traditional restrictions for Afghan women.

Those young women were part of a group of Afghans who believed in the future of the country, Nasr said, calling it a vision of Afghanistan that's now in shambles.

"All of that work, 20 years of people really believing in this dream of a new government — seeing its problems, not being uncritical of the international community — but investing in it. Because it was the best thing that they could do. All that work, decades of people's lives … reduced to rubble."

Nasr is frustrated with what he describes as the clumsy withdrawal of Western troops from the 20-year war, disguised as a peace process, and also the situation at the one remaining airport in the Afghan capital. With the Kabul airport now closed to commercial flights, he said many of his friends are stranded and feeling betrayed. 

WATCH | Director Tarique Qayumi describes the threats his cast encountered while filming in Kabul:

Taliban confront a changing Afghanistan

Both filmmakers agree that the future of Afghanistan rests on who the Taliban have become. 

Nasr said he hopes the so-called "new Taliban" are not the same repressive regime of the 1990s. 

Qayumi said the Taliban will need to reckon with a country that has doubled in population and changed dramatically. 

"The country is not the old Afghanistan, the country has had a taste of freedom. They've had free press for all these years. People have started businesses," he said. "The country that has fallen into the hands of the Taliban is not the same."

He stresses now is the time for Afghans on all sides to do some soul-searching and come together as a people. "I know that the Taliban are there," he said. "We don't know what's going to happen next, but it can happen."

But for now, Qayumi said he feels Afghanistan is spiralling out of control: "It's in free fall."


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.