The Current

How the Taliban tried to destroy Afghanistan's film heritage, and the secret plan to stop them

Director Ariel Nasr's documentary The Forbidden Reel explores a secret effort to conceal an archive of Afghan films from the Taliban, who were destroying cultural artifacts in the late 1990s.

Documentary The Forbidden Reel explores effort to save film archive dating to 1920s

A scene from one of a batch of Afghan films saved from destruction at the hands of the Taliban in the 1990s. New documentary The Forbidden Reel explores the films and what they reveal about the country's history. (The Forbidden Reel/NFB Marketing)

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Growing up in Canada, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ariel Nasr was always "hungry for imagery" of his father's home country of Afghanistan, but nothing was available.

"All his photographs, all the kind of visual heritage of my family was lost in the war, which is quite a common story there," Montreal-based Nasr told The Current's Matt Galloway.

On top of that destruction of personal effects, the Taliban had decreed many forms of cultural expression to be heretical when they took power in the mid-1990s. They burned books and films and destroyed the country's museums and collections of art.

But after Nasr moved there to make documentaries in 2008, he discovered that a treasure trove of Afghan films — dating back to the 1920s — had escaped the Taliban's pyres.

Those films and how they survived are the subject of his film The Forbidden Reel, airing online this week as part of the Hot Docs film festival.

He told Galloway that in 1996, a Taliban official named Isaac Nezami secretly tipped off the country's national film production institute, Afghan Film. He warned them that radical fighters were on their way to destroy the archive.

"[The archivists] were able to hide the films, and what they did as an act of subterfuge was actually offered them films that were less valuable," said Nasr.

While those substitute films — copies of U.S. and Bollywood films — ended up on a bonfire, while the Afghan originals were secreted behind a false wall.

"They burned those films and thought that they had destroyed Afghanistan's film heritage," he said.

But he said the films that survived are "beautiful works of art, and they're shot on the background of Afghan history."

"They show images that you would never see — images that just weren't documented by Western cameras."

Women soldiers carry guns in a scene from one of the films that survived the destruction of Afghanistan's cultural treasures in the late 1990s. (The Forbidden Reel/NFB Marketing )

Two decades later, he tracked down the official, who was still living in Kabul, and brought him back to the film institute, where he was given a "hero's welcome."

"He said 'I did not agree that the films should be burned. Whether they were good or bad, they're part of history, they're part of our heritage,'" said Nasr, recalling the visit.

"He felt that whether their contents were religiously orthodox or not, he felt strongly that heritage should not be destroyed."

Both the official and the Afghan Film workers were risking their lives, and would have been killed if they had been discovered, he said.

He thinks it's an example of people overcoming their differences that he sees recurring in Afghan history.

"Even though there's different ideologies, people from different sides were still able to co-operate over things that were essential to them."

A 'much more complex' history

The collection of films that were saved "really runs the gamut," Nasr said. 

"There's historical films about an Afghan queen, for example, who many centuries ago was persecuted for having an affair with her slave," he said.

"There's even a musical film that looks very much like Bollywood."

There are also documentaries, painting Afghanistan as "at one time a place where violence was not part of the everyday experience," he said.

Ariel Nasr grew up in Canada but moved to Afghanistan to make documentaries in 2008. (Kiana Hayeri)

The films also show a time where women had a very different role in society, with "women officials giving speeches in front of hundreds of people … you see women soldiers, you see women bus drivers," he said.

"I think overall, what you learn is that Afghan history is much more complex than what we've been led to believe," he told Galloway.

He hopes that his film "will help them complicate the picture, by bringing images that were shot by Afghans that show a much more complex reality."

Now, the films are "locked away" in an archive within the presidential compound, but Nasr wants them to be digitized and made available to the public.

"They should be a click of a mouse away, ideally," he said.

"I really feel strongly that in order to kind of imagine a future for Afghanistan, it's really powerful and really important to have some visual evidence of the past."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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