Peering through the lens at Kabul and fretting

People | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 9 Mar 2020

For a generation, Roya Sadat has been a voice for Afghan women in one of the world's worst places to be one.

One of the first female filmmakers to make her name after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, she has won plaudits at home and abroad for works such as A Letter to the President, Three Dots and Playing the Taar.

She lived through the Soviet occupation, civil war, and the Taliban's rule, where women existed in the shadows.

Her great fear is a return to fundamentalism: the February US-Taliban deal may be a first step towards peace, but it offers no guarantees a few women's rights set out in the current constitution will be upheld.

"I feel concerned when I remember how we had simply been forgotten during the five-year Taliban rule until 9/11," said 37-year-old Sadat.

Now, almost 39 percent of girls in Afghanistan go to secondary school according to World Bank figures for 2017, while USAid reported that 300,000 students in Afghan universities around one third are female.

These figures are mainly for urban areas, but 20 years ago it would have been all but impossible everywhere.

Sadat, who has been writing stories, poems and plays since her young years, recalled how her life simply ground to a halt in 1996 when the Taliban rolled in. Schools closed, women were confined to homes, and televisions and radios went dead.

A precocious teenager, she continued to write inside the family home and read books on directing movies from her father's collection.

She was allowed to work as a nurse as women could only get female medical help, and she set up clandestine cultural performances of her plays in the hospital. "It was very dangerous," she said.

Her first work, Three Dots, which tells the tale of a single mother forced to marry a warlord and become a drug smuggler, was penned during this period but only made once the regime changed.

This determination and persistence has defined her career.

The mother-of-two explained: "I turned to cinema, when I had just come out of an era of suffocation."

In her twenties she set up an independent film company, Roya Film House, with her sister Alka and was awarded a scholarship to study film in South Korea.

Her stories are those of Afghan women and said that locals understand when they see her work. Her 2017 film A Letter to the President shows a woman slapping back at a violent husband when he hits her before accidentally killing him.

Sadat depicted an act of female rebellion in a country where women are often forced to stay in abusive marriages but recalled an audience applauding at the slap scene.

The winner of the International Woman of Courage Award in 2017, she's committed to supporting the next generation of female filmmakers.

The latest edition of her International Women's Film Festival in Herat, launched in 2013, received more than 2,500 submissions.

"This society needs a revolution of thought, and this cannot be done except with the help of cinema," Sadat said.

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