On Film and the Terror of War: interview with an Afghan filmmaker


Growing up as a child refugee in Iran, 28 year old Kabul-based filmmaker, Ahmad Imami,  would often hear stories about the war in Afghanistan from where his parents were forced to flee after the Taliban take-over in 1996.


Perhaps it is this that sparked his interest in seeking refuge in imaginary worlds, he muses.


“Since I was a young child I have wanted to make films”, he says, “I was not like the Iranian kids, I didn’t have the things that they had…I was a dreamy kid…I used to imagine a lot of things.”


Watching the Lord of the Rings was a defining moment for him; “I wondered how one person could create an entire new world by himself… I felt that if I can become a filmmaker, I can create my own world- I can imagine and create whatever I want.”


He cites Persian films among his influences, including the multi-award-winning Children of Heaven, a 1997 family drama, written and directed by Majid Majidi and French New Wave films such as Truffaut's 400 blows.


He was eleven when his father moved the family back to Afghanistan in 2004, believing that the situation was safe after the ousting from power of the Taliban by US-led forces in 2001.


When he moved from his village in Balkhab, a district in northern Afghanistan, to Kabul to study filmmaking at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Kabul University, his parents were supportive; “They told me I must study whatever I choose but I must be the best at it”.


Since graduating, he has worked on a number of films and documentaries, including as co-producer for the award-winning Midnight Traveler, (directed by Hassan Fazili) and as a cinematographer on the popular Afghan TV sitcom Khate Sewom, a drama series about young people from different ethnic groups who struggle with the social and cultural dictums of an ultra-conservative and traditional society.


He was also a production manager at the Herat International Women’s Film Festival which was established in 2013 to promote women’s rights and gender equality in Afghan society. The festival which usually takes place in March, has been cancelled due to Covid.


I ask him how the film industry is impacted by the current war and the rapid advance of the Taliban which has seen them swiftly gaining ground, seizing dozens of districts in the last couple of weeks.


“All filmmaking has stopped because of the current situation,”, he says, “ it is so bad that everyone is talking about the war. It is difficult to work in these circumstances because of the stress of war. The other day, some thieves stole my camera…”


Due to security threats, Ahmad is unable to leave Kabul. He worries about his parents who still reside in the district of Balkhab, the only district in the Sar-e-Pol province which he says, has not yet been seized by the Taliban.


“I cannot stop thinking about it. I haven’t been able to sleep for the last 2 weeks because I am scared for my parents. I can’t remember the last time I laughed. I feel helpless. I don’t know what to do.”


In early July, he and other filmmaker friends organised a press conference to draw attention to the displaced people in the Sar-e-Pol province and the ill-equipped resistance fighters who are making desperate attempts to fend off the Taliban.


“Resistance fighters are using weapons from over 20 years ago, when the Taliban fighters have tanks and night-vision cameras,” he says. He even joked about a picture that circulated on social media depicting a man using a weapon from World War One.


According to Ahmad, a real humanitarian crisis is currently unfolding in the province of Sar-e-Pol which has seen over 16 000 people flee to the mountains in search for safety. 


He says that they feel let down by the government which has failed to send troops and food supplies to the region.


Ahmad gathered footage shot on mobile phones sent to him by friends and relatives in Sar-e-Pol, showing families fleeing to the mountains in the middle of the night, taking their cattle with them. He has sent the footage and additional video material from the press conference to several international media outlets but has not yet received a response.


Two days after our call, Ahmad wrote to inform me that Afghanistan’s most popular comedian Nazar Mohammad, known as ‘Khashe’, was brutally murdered by a group of Taliban fighters who left his dead body hanging from a tree.


“They killed him just because he was an artist”, he wrote, “why is the Western media not talking about this?”


The incident has sparked outrage in the country. Killing Afghanistan’s funnyman is a grim portent of what might happen to artists who are  critical of the Taliban, as Khashe was.


Despite a significant rebirth after the fall of the savage Taliban regime in 2001 which had banned music and film, the future of Afghanistan’s film industry is looking increasingly uncertain.


During our Zoom call, I asked Ahmad if he was working on any film scripts at the moment:

“I’m writing a feature film script now,” he answered, “There is a collective of Afghan filmmakers in Europe that is helping filmmakers like me. They have asked me to send them my script so they can edit it and help find the budget for it”.


But there is an uncertainty, almost hesitancy in his voice as he discusses his project. He has other things to think about. Consumed by the anger and anxiety of war, it seems there is little room for him to contemplate the future.


On the kidnapping of my grandfather and other British nationals


'SALONICA- When returning home at about 10pm on the evening of March 21, Robert Abbott had just entered the garden and was within a few steps of his father’s door when he was attacked by five or six men’ – so begins the article written by a  Reuters correspondent in Uskub (now Skopje) in April 1907, on the capture of Robert Abbott, my grandfather, then aged 19.


The article goes on to say that Robert put up a fight, kicking one of the assailants in the abdomen and biting the fingers of another band member ‘who was trying to force a gag into his mouth. But the victim was speedily overpowered when one of the brigands sat upon his head and at this moment, they seem to have administered chloroform, as Mr. Abbott lost consciousness and continued in a half-dazed condition, suffering from nausea for two days afterwards’


The story of my grandfather’s kidnapping in Salonica, Northern Greece (which was then under the Ottoman Empire), captured my imagination from an early age and had been recounted time and time again by my father during many a family meal. I was eleven years old when I wrote an essay on it for English class.  ‘Great story’ the teacher commented on the top right-hand corner of my essay in blotchy red ink, ‘but is this TRUE???!’.


Fast forward three decades; I am casually doing a google search when I stumble upon a gem of a newspaper clipping with a picture of my grandfather as a young boy with the headline ‘CAPTURED BY BRIGANDS’, for sale on e-bay. I immediately purchase it from Julian, a retired bookseller in Durham whose hobby it was- quote- to put aside any news clippings he thought might be of interest to someone, one day- unquote.

The world needs more Julians.

The story was published in The Bystander, just after my grandfather had been captured. The ‘brigands’ were demanding a ransom of approximately £ 25,000 which is today’s equivalent of almost half a million pounds.

Immediately after the capture, Robert’s father sent ‘a trusty servant to scour all the villages around Salonica’ and four secret agents were sent to track down the criminals, but their efforts were in vain.


News of Robert’s capture was raised in the House of Commons on the 27th of March, when Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, announced that ‘a telegram has been received from His Majesty's Ambassador at Constantinople on the subject, and the necessary steps are being taken by the Grand Vizier and the local authorities at Salonika in concert with the British Consulate’.


On the 6th of April, a letter was found in the garden of my great-grandfather, Alfred Abbott. The letter was handwritten by his son, informing him that he was in the hands of brigands who demanded £25,000 for his release. Attached to the letter was a small note, written in pencil, in capital letters (just like in good old-fashioned Western movies) informing Alfred Abbott that any refusal to pay would result in the mutilation or death of his son.


In the Victorian age, the kidnapping of British nationals abroad in exchange for a ransom, was almost commonplace. They were a particularly costly affair for the British government since ransoms were usually paid with public moneys. 

In 1880, an exasperated foreign secretary, Lord Granville, decided enough was enough, and took a firm stance on the kidnapping of British subjects and in particular the payment of ransoms; ‘The Taxpayer ought not to be perpetually paying for the ransoms for people who choose to travel or reside in notoriously unsafe countries'. In 1881, the Granville doctrine was borne.


Thereafter, the liability of future kidnappings of Brits abroad would lie with foreign governments. If they could not maintain a basic level of law and order within their borders and guarantee safety for reasonably behaved Brits, then whatever happened to the victims would fall under the realm of their jurisdiction. Unsurprisingly, the number of international kidnappings declined significantly after this- mainly because many British people decided that adventurous travel was too risky after all or were generally more prudent when they did make a trip abroad. 


But when my grandfather was kidnapped in 1907, the British authorities were faced with a dilemma. Robert hadn’t travelled to Salonica for a bit of adventure- it was his hometown. He had lived there all his life. His family had settled there in the early 1800s. Robert had been kidnapped in his own garden. He was hardly to blame.


Who was going to produce the cash to secure his release?

Raising that amount of money in the time available could be a matter of life and death for the victim. Although reasonably wealthy, Robert’s father, Alfred Abbott did not have the money readily available. He would have to mortgage his urban property (which ironically included the building of the British Consulate)- but that could take several months.


Concerns over Robert’s safety were compounded by the fact that a similar incident had occurred two years earlier when British national, Philip Wills, had been kidnapped in another area of Macedonia and had his left ear sliced off by his captors because the British government had bided its time over the payment of the ransom. (Philips’s ear was later ‘satisfactorily’ sewn back, as he recounted in his book ‘A Captive of the Bulgarian Brigands: An Englishman’s Terrible Experiences in Macedonia’).


While the British Consulate was busy hammering out a solution with the Ottoman authorities, Robert was being kept in a room, the floor and walls of which were ‘concealed by rush matting, as if to render identification difficult’. The windows were hermetically closed, and the room was lit by a lamp which was ‘kept burning all day and all night’. He was constantly being watched by two gang members who, according to the article written by the Reuters correspondent, were ‘quite kind to him, and except for retaining him as their prisoner, did all they could to meet his wishes'. 


Were they kind to my grandfather because he was deaf? Robert had suffered a severe bout of meningitis age five which left him with profound deafness in both ears. I imagine they might have taken pity on him, while no doubt also relieved that he was unable to hear their conversations. Robert on the other hand, would have observed his captors with quiet detachment, not wanting to kick a fuss, confident he would be rescued and that this was just another bump in the road which he would have to take in his stride.


In the end, the exceptional decision was made to flout the Granville doctrine since the Porte, (the government of the Ottoman Empire), had declined to pay for the ransom. The British Consul- General was certain that Robert would die at the hands of his captors if there were any further delays in the negotiations. He eventually obtained the authorisation from the British government to use public funds (in the form of an advance which had been fixed at £13,000) and on the evening of the 25th of April, the money was sent from Salonica, ‘under an escort of four armoured men and was handed over to the brigands (20 of them altogether) at a point among the hills four or five miles from Salonica.’


The Chief of the brigands was keen to reassure the rescue party that this was all for a good cause, and that ‘the money would in no sense be thrown away as it would ensure lifelong happiness to a score of honest families'.

Robert, however, was no-where to be seen. The captors promised to release him once the money was out of the way and they could guarantee they would not go after them.


It wasn’t until the evening of the 29th, that Robert was informed the ransom had been paid and that he would be set free. His boots and a few valuables were returned to him and that same evening they embarked on a long march back to Salonica.  They blindfolded him to make sure he would not identify the spot and only uncovered his eyes when he needed refreshments, standing around him with ‘outspread cloaks’ when they did so, to hide his view.


They walked till about 11 O’clock the next day, when they finally removed the bandage from the prisoner’s eyes, informing him that he was at liberty and not far from Salonica.


The scene of parting could have come straight out of a 19th century literary classic novel; ‘The brigands departed, each of them kissing Mr. Abbott’s hand by way of farewell. At the same time, they made him a present of £T 20. This was according to brigand use and wont. On gaining the summit of the nearest ridge he could see the lights of Salonica; he stumbled on in the moonlight and reached home about half past three in the morning.'


When news of my grandfather’s release reached the UK, questions were raised in the House of Commons on the 2nd of May regarding the conditions of his release. Clearly not too pleased with the fact that public money had been used to pay the ransom, a couple of MPs were keen to know what sum was paid and whether the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey (who was in the line of fire at this point) would take the necessary steps to secure repayment from the Turkish government. Sir Edward Grey reassured them that the recovery of the sum- which he referred to as an ‘advance’- was being negotiated with the Turkish government- and that was that.


What he did not mention- no doubt due to the risky and uncertain nature of the endeavour- was that great efforts were being deployed to find the kidnappers and reclaim the ransom money. The operation was successful; a couple of weeks later, the kidnappers were found, and a portion of the ransom had been recovered (£ 8000 in total).

You can tell by the picture below they weren’t all too pleased their Operation Kidnap had gone awry:


Why we need a National 'Resting Bitch Face' Day


As we ease ourselves out of the dystopian reality that has governed our lives for the past 15 months, the need to communicate and re-connect with people has never been stronger.


After all, we are social beings. Yet many of us are still somewhat weary of heading out into a post-pandemic world. In a weird Stockholm-y syndrome kind of way, there are some of us that fear leaving the cage to meet the outside world again.


Our social skills are out of practice and anyway what is there to talk about?


We’ve spent more than a year not having to uphold social graces; not having to feign interest at meetings we were summoned to only to discover half way through that we had no idea what we were doing there; not having to do small talk in the lift with that colleague from hell  which we have all encountered at some point in our working lives. 


While Zoom has very much been our lifeline during lockdown, I think many of us would agree the best thing about Zoom meetings is having the option to conduct them in our underpants or pretend to freeze momentarily and blame our lack of response to an important question, on technical issues.

(“Can you hear me? Can you hear me now? Uh-oh….You still there..? Looks like you’ve frozen”, says puzzled on-screen interlocutor. No, I haven’t frozen. I am just pretending here while I think of an answer to your impossible question. It’s the pandemic-themed version of the Mannequin Challenge, if you like).


Our facial muscles have been on a well-deserved break and it’s been good for the soul.


Having to re-adjust might be difficult for many. A lot of soul-searching and shedding of old habits has taken place during this pandemic.


People have changed careers, written books, disappeared on yoga retreats, squeezed the living daylights out of their creative selves, expanded their families, divorced, married…


Which brings me to this; since Working From Home may no longer be an option in the near future, I think a National Resting Bitch Face Day would be the best way to ease ourselves back into a post-pandemic world which, let’s face it, will not be as we left it at the start of the pandemic.


We will all need a day in the outside world where we won’t have to wear a mask- excuse the double entendre- where we can let our faces relax and express nothing at all, like when we left the camera off during Zoom meetings. We should be allowed to be ourselves, our true authentic selves. There would be no pressure to fake an emotion, a laughter. No need for office banter either if we can't think of a funny retort. We would go about our business as usual, just without the frills of vacuous smiles and other simulations of joy.


Here's a thought: perhaps the much anticipated “Freedom Day” on the 19th of July should be coined “Resting Bitch Face Day” instead? Whilst the lifting of restrictions is meant to be a joyous event, I predict many of us won’t be smiling when the masks come off because we all know that this pandemic is far from over. We won’t be ‘free’ from anything. To a certain extent, a national RBF Day will allow us to feel liberated- at least for a day.


Louis XIV of France: a true master in the art of the RBF

I was 13 when I got fired from my first job

My first paid job involved selling fruit & vegetables at the Saturday market of my hometown, Ferney-Voltaire in France. I had just turned 13 and, no longer willing to put up with the hand-me-downs from my elder sisters, was determined to buy my own clothes and CDs- preferably with money that I had earned.


The Ferney market, or ‘Marché de Ferney’ as it is more commonly known among the regulars, gathered over 200 market traders from all over the region. It was and still is a popular event; every Saturday people flock from the entire region including neighbouring Geneva, to do their weekly shopping.


It was still dark when I set out on my bike at 6:30 am for my first shift. I was excited.

It felt so grown up.

My boss, whom I will refer to as Shouty Boss because he didn’t speak, he shouted (an inevitable side-effect I attributed to a career based on trying to out-shout the other stall holders), had hired me the week before and asked me to come in early for training. The training session  lasted about 3 seconds and consisted mainly in having to observe him close a sale.

« JEUNE FILLE » he yelled (I was “young girl” - he didn’t do names), “REGARDE COMMENT JE FAIS : HOP…HOP…et HOP ! » I watched as he threw a bunch of courgettes into a paper bag (HOP) while flirting with an elderly female customer- dumped the bag on the weighing machine (HOP)- quick mental calculation- and (HOP) bag was handed to now blushing female customer who gave him the cash and “VOILA!”. This is how it is done, he shouted: “ICI, C’EST GO! GO!GO!”, basically implying there was no time to faff around.


I enjoyed the interaction with the customers, the rowdiness, the hustle and bustle of the vendors at their trade, the range of aromas floating in the air, that feeling you get when you’ve been up since the crack of dawn and the world is opening up for the day.


Watching other sellers trying to outmanoeuvre one another was entertaining. There was something quite theatrical and machiavellian about their tactics. Customers usually addressed the seller who gave them the best performance, who lured them in with a witty remark, a poetic metaphor, a colourful lie, a flirtatious line or by handing them a piece of juicy, drippy orange.  It was all very Dangerous Liaisons-y.


My first shift went by quickly; Shouty Boss patted me on the back to indicate he was happy with my work, and yelled:


“ TIENS, JEUNE FILLE”, as he handed me 150 French Francs- a big sum for me in those days. I cycled back home, grinning from ear to ear; these were my first earnings EVER and I could spend my money as I pleased. It gave me a delicious sense of freedom.


The following Saturday I made a weak attempt to emulate my colleagues; ‘come-try-our tasty-apples-you-will-dream-of-them-for-days’, ‘our-mangos-are-so-juicy-they-will-melt-in your-mouth’. I found myself expressing all sorts of stupid platitudes around fruit and vegetables  which seemed to fall flat on their face.

‘It’s chanterelles season, come and try our chanterelles mushrooms- the best in the region!’ I called out to an elderly woman passing by.

She approached the stall, asking for the price.

“30 FF per kilo” I informed her.

“Wonderful. I’ll have half a kilo of those, please.”

I promptly responded, filled a bag to the brim and before I knew it, was onto my second order of chanterelles.

“How much?”, said a man pointing to the chanterelles, standing next to the elderly woman.

His eyes widened when I told him the price. I was happy that I was already on my second customer in under two minutes. Soon more people gathered, before I knew it a queue had formed and I very quickly became busy filling bags and bags of chanterelles. I finally seemed to have gotten the hang of it. We were soon running out. One excited customer informed me she needed plenty as her family was coming for lunch the next day.

“Merci mademoiselle,” she smiled as I handed her three bags full of chanterelles, scraping the bottom of the containers to get the very last of the mushroom.

Little did I know that Shouty Boss was standing behind me and had observed the scene.

“IT’S 30 FF PER 100 GRAMMES AND NOT PER KILO!!!!” he yelled in crescendo. The customer grabbed her shopping bags and hurried off.


How was I to know? Prices were scribbled on these mini chalkboards that generally disappeared under the pile of produce making them illegible after a while. I hadn’t seen the 2 zeros after the 1 because they had rubbed off onto the mushrooms.


At the end of my shift, Shouty Boss handed me my earnings and informed me that I didn’t need to come back the following Saturday. I was crushed. I could feel myself sinking into a bubbling quagmire of guilt and shame as I wandered off, pondering how on earth I was going to afford a new wardrobe and the last Queen album I was desperate to get my hands on. I wasn’t ready to give up hope just yet and stopped at another fruit and vegetable stall further down the road that looked slightly under-staffed. Were they looking for someone? I asked the person who looked like they were in charge. Yes-we-are-when-can-you-start? Next-week. Perfect-come-for-a-6.30-start. OK, I said.

It was as easy as that. I cycled back home, grinning from ear to ear, feeling relieved and somewhat pleased with myself.


Le Marché, at a busy hour.

How to stay Zen during lockdown: get a cat

A week before lockdown happened, I bought myself a kitten- a tabby kitten to be precise. Not on a whim, mind- I had wanted to get one for ages- although I was  aware that I was (inadvertently) part of a Pet Rush movement that had decided lockdown was the perfect opportunity to raise a kitten (or a puppy), thus prompting the price of our furry friends to rise exponentially over the coming weeks and months.

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