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Being an Afghan film actress is no role for the faint-hearted

Disapproval from society and the Taliban means only a brave few dare to portray gender-based injustice through television and cinema

Saba Sahar is one of the few Afghan women working in film and television. Ahmad Masood / Reuters
Saba Sahar is one of the few Afghan women working in film and television. Ahmad Masood / Reuters

KABUL // A young bride silently sobs on the floor watching her mentally disturbed husband gorge on chicken, rub his greasy hands through his hair and scream at her for more, just another chapter in the couple's violent life together.

The film director Saba Sahar anxiously watches the scene by the cameraman, squatting in blue jeans and wearing a bright pink headscarf. "Cut!" she calls.

The first Afghan woman in her profession, Sahar, 36, has become a household name after acting and directing for more than half her life. She is adored by Afghan women.

Like other Afghan directors, Sahar says finding actresses is her top challenge in a country where many view acting as un-Islamic and inappropriate for women.

Deba Barekzai, 19, who plays the young bride in Sahar's 15-part television series, says: "Some Afghans think cinema is a bad place for girls. Working in cinema has caused me lots of problems and difficulties."

She spoke during a break in filming in a mud and straw house on Kabul's outskirts, her eyes still glistening from a red onion used to force tears in her last scene.

Her family judged it too dangerous for her to train in Afghanistan because of disapproving relatives and the Taliban, so Barekzai went to neighbouring Iran to study acting.

The Afghan-Canadian director Nelofer Pariza said family pressure stopped several of her actresses from showing up on set when filming 2009's An Act of Dishonour, a true story about an honour killing.

"It was really sad. Fear would actually stop them from coming to work," Pariza told the audience last month after the film's first public screening in Afghanistan.

A film within a film, An Act of Dishonour revolves around the fate of an Afghan actress who starred in a film made by Pariza's colleague. Upon discovering his wife had taken part in a film, the husband shot her dead.

She is played by the actress Marina Golbahari, who achieved global fame from her role as a young girl dressed as a boy in the Afghan film Osama and now studies acting in India.

Pariza and Sahar are among a handful of female Afghan directors who focus on violence against women in a bid to both employ women on screen and expose their plight.

Nine years ago Sahar set up her production company, Saba Film, with this aim.

"I have two messages for Afghan women and girls. First they should never think they are weak; second, they must have self-confidence," said Sahar, whose frank and orderly manner hints at her past as one of Afghanistan's few policewomen.

Called The Green Leaves of Autumn, her new series evokes hope in the unlikely.

The bride is subject to baad, an Afghan tradition in which a woman is given as compensation for a crime. Though illegal it is widespread, causing outcry from international rights groups.

In the narrative, she is given to her husband after her brother guns down his relative in a duel. Her family honour is restored, but she is beaten, sexually abused and forced to slave away for a man she despises.

Later, the young woman's brother avenges his sister, and stabs the mentally ill husband to death.

"This is an example of just one of the many problems Afghan women face in today's society," Sahar said.

Further complicating their challenges are the threats the film industry receives from a resurgent Taliban, which banned television and women from most work before their rule was toppled by US-backed Afghan forces a decade ago.

Amid escalating violence across Afghanistan in the 10th year of fighting in the Nato-led war, fear of the Taliban is present across many sectors of society.

The Afghan film industry says suicide attacks and bombs threaten the livelihood of its cinema just as much as its lack of quality equipment.

Latif Ahmadi, a much-loved director and the head of Afghan Film, the state-run cinema agency, says: "These are the reasons our cinema today cannot improve."