The man who has made 100 films in Afghanistan but can't read or write
With 110 movies under his belt, Afghan filmmaker Salim Shaheen finally made it to the red carpet in Cannes as the star of a charming and hilarious documentary portrait by French journalist Sonia Kronlund
Salim Shaheen at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Photograph: Nicolas Pratviel/AFP/Getty Images
In 2013, Steven Spielberg headed the Cannes Film Festival jury from his 282ft yacht. Last May, Salim Shaheen – the Afghan Spielberg – was a little less ostentatious when he made his debut appearance on the Croisette.
The man they call the “sultan of cinema” in his native Kabul was not screening one of 111 gonzo feature films he has shot since 1985. Instead, he appeared in as the star of Sonia Kronlund’s hilarious, charming documentary portrait, The Prince of Nothingwood.
“Hollywood, Nollywood, Nothingwood,” explains Shaheen. “Afghanistan cinema is Nothingwood. Because there is no money, no resources, no equipment: nothing.”
This lack of resources has not stopped the exuberant Shaheen from becoming one of the planet’s most prolific filmmakers in a country where even watching a film can get you killed. As Sonia Kronlund notes, he quite literally has managed to make dreams out of nothing.
“He’s full of energy and fun,” she says. “But he’s very complex. He’s very egocentric. He has huge funds of energy, then suddenly he’ll fall asleep. He’s eager to please and eager to make cinema.”
In her native France, Sonia Kronlund is best known for her dispatches from Iran, Afghanistan and Japan for Les Pieds sur Terre, which translates as Feet on the Ground, a daily radio documentary broadcast that has aired on France Culture since 2002. She first visited Afghanistan in 2000 and has since returned more than 15 times to make documentary segments, start a programme for writers and set up a small Afghan publishing company.
It’s an astonishing place, Kronlund says, but it’s not what you think. “In Afghanistan, you have rules, but even among the Taliban, the rules don’t often apply,” she says. “I remember my first day in Afghanistan I was forbidden to take pictures of living creatures. Not even animals and insects. And they were very strict and adamant about that. So on the second day, a bunch of Taliban stopped me and asked me to take their picture. I said: ‘Oh, come on; it’s forbidden’. And they said: ‘Yeah, but we don’t care; take a picture, please, please.’ This is Afghanistan. It’s chaotic. The rules are very messy. And they love cinema. Even most of the Taliban love cinema.”
Sure enough, one Taliban fighter – his face obscured by a scarf and sunglasses – appears in The Prince of Nothingwood to sing the praises of Salim Shaheen. “I thought the Taliban destroyed all films?” Kronlund asks the young Taliban veteran who hopes “to see an Islamic State” and “strict application of Sharia Law” in Afghanistan. “Yes, but the Taliban trade in DVDs,” he says.
An early scene in The Prince of Nothingwood follows Kronlund and Shaheen to a game of buzkashi, a sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to place a goat or calf carcass in a goal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she is the only woman there.
“I’m used to it. It’s not a problem. As Salim says, they don’t really see me as a woman. I’m foreign. I’m not Muslim. I’m a guest. So whether I’m a man or a woman doesn’t matter. Hospitality is extremely important in Afghanistan. Even if your enemy asks you for hospitality, you have to give it.”
'Do you know who I am?' he asks an adoring throng of young men
It really is a complicated country. As a young conscript, Shaheen was the sole survivor of a 1982 Mujahideen attack, yet he still cites Mujahideen-collaborator Rambo as his cinematic idol: “He doesn’t know there is somebody called Sylvester Stallone, ” says Kronlund. “He only knows him as Rambo. He doesn’t know any Hollywood cinema. Bruce Lee is as western as his influences get.”
The De Niro to Shaheen’s Scorsese is Qurban Ali, a hilariously flamboyant cross-dresser, who wears a burqa and plays an agony aunt on an Afghan television show. “How many wives do you have?” asks Kronlund, as she visits with Ali’s wife and children. “I have one and I don’t want any more,” he guffaws.
Ali lives in what Kronlund calls an “acceptable realm”: as long as he doesn’t come out as a homosexual, his taste for gender role switching and cross-dressing is tolerated and even appreciated.
“He likes to dress as a woman,” she says. “But he has a wife and children. He’s not openly gay, so that’s tolerated. Afghan society isn’t as rigid as people think. Now he’s in Paris. He didn’t go back after the Cannes Film Festival. He’s applying for refugee status and he’s hoping to bring over his wife and kids and have a better life. The economic situation in Afghanistan is very bad. He’s paid less than €200 a month as an electrician and nothing as an actor.”
The Prince of Nothingwood opens as Salim Shaheen – who is either 51 or 53; he’s not sure – has alighted in a remote mountain village, close to where the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.
“Do you know who I am?” he asks an adoring throng of young men. Of course they do. Before he begins shooting with his skeletal crew of friends and family, the writer, director, producer and star of such films as Professional Gambler screens his most recent production for the locals, who gasp, cheer, laugh and white-knuckle their way through a bizarre mash-up of cartoon violence, ludicrous heroics and Bollywood style lip-synching.
Many of his films are made in four days. When gory special effects are required, somebody kills an unfortunate chicken. Gun battles are “simulated” with live rounds and Kalashnikovs. With an accidental nod to Ken Loach, policemen and soldiers often appear as themselves. In fact, when Shaheen was a commander during the Afghan Civil War in 1992, he continued making films using his unit as actors and extras.
“I haven’t seen many of the films,” Kronlund confesses. “They have dialogue that lasts for hours that I can’t understand. By our production standards, they’re very bad. But I hired a guy who specialises in low-budget movies to watch all 110 films. He liked them. And there are scenes of singing and dancing that are good. Salim is a very good dancer and singer. I’m not sure he’s as good at acting.”
For all his multi-tasking, Shaheen is illiterate. Which makes you wonder how he manages to write screenplays.
“Screenplay is a big word to apply to his films,” explains Kronlund. “There’s not really a screenplay. They figure out the story roughly and rehearse scenes. Most of the time they are very long films with a beginning and an end and in between there’s singing and action and endless dialogue. It’s incredible but he cannot read and write. It’s quite difficult for him to even take a plane. But he pretends he can read and write. He would never admit the truth.”
Do they like their husband’s films? Not so much
Kronlund was initially introduced to Salim Shaheen by Atiq Rahim, the French-Afghan writer and filmmaker. She immediately thought this larger-than-life character and his kitsch Z-movies could make for a fun profile. But as she dug deeper, she realised there was something more to him and to his cinema.
“He’s a very brave man,” she says.
She’s not exaggerating. When Shaheen says: “I would die for cinema,” he really means it. In 1995, he survived a rocket attack on his studio in which nine of his actors and crew were killed. Last September, a suicide bomber attacked a Shia mosque not far from the same facility. His shoots frequently happen with shelling and missiles in the background. Even the middle-class Kabul neighbourhood where he lives is plagued by kidnapping. His response to all these ills is always the same: “Allah. God willing.”
Similarly, Shaheen’s makeshift movies are more than just clumsily executed Jackie Chan moves. “The stories he tells are very interesting,” says Kronlund. “I was really touched by how socially aware his films are. They always tell the story of a poor guy fighting against a powerful man. The little guy wins at the end. The worker that’s exploited comes out on top. Poor people fight for their rights and win. Powerful and corrupt people are punished. He’s very politically correct in a way.”
In this spirit, Shaheen insists that “directors must save people” and that “cinema should deal with all subjects in Afghanistan, even the taboo ones”. He has shot a film about Farkhunda, a girl killed by a mob in Kabul after being falsely accused of blasphemy.
“That story was very moving for the whole country. So Salim decided he wanted to be a feminist, even though he has two wives.”
As Kronlund notes, her subject could not have been more obliging. But he did resort to ridiculous excuses whenever she asked to film his wives.
‘Oppression of the women’
“In Afghanistan, the oppression of the women is a cultural story that pre-dates Islam,” she says. “Obviously it’s an aspect of the culture I disapprove of. But he comes from a really traditional background where even saying your wife’s name is inappropriate. It was probably naive of me to think it might happen. I asked him 100 times, saying ‘this is ridiculous, you have women in your films but you won’t let me put your wives in my film’. He’s a smart guy. He always had a joke or stupid argument as an answer.”
She did get to know the wives, nonetheless. “They’re great friends and they were very happy to have me because I keep their husband away from home,” says Kronlund. “He’s a very active person so I think when he’s at home, he gets bored. I know that at first they didn’t get along very well together, but things are better now. There’s an older one and a younger one. It’s a very classic story, not so different from what happens in the West. Except in Afghanistan you hang on to the first wife.”
Do they like their husband’s films? “Not so much. There are some women who love them. But mostly they are films for men. The family are not especially interested. There are 14 people in the house so they are very busy. It’s more like a school than a house, with children running everywhere. There are 14 kids. He has children that are the same age as his grandchildren.”
The Prince of Nothingwood has already gone down a storm on the festival circuit. Kronlund, however, is more pleased that the film has allowed Salim Shaheen to walk down red carpets at the Bombay Film Festival and at Cannes.
“I cried tears of joy when I found out I was going to Cannes,” Shaheen told the Cannes press conference. “My dream is to come back and compete for the Palme d’Or with one of my own films. I’ll have to make a good one. I have my camera with me here, but it has run out of batteries.”
The Prince of Nothingwood is on release
Meet the ’Woods
The nickname given to the Bombay-based Hindi language film industry, a near neighbour to Lollywood (Punjabi), Dhallywood (Bangladeshi), Kaliwood (Nepalese) and many more.
The huge, thriving and largely amateur Nigerian film industry, as named by a 2002 article in the New York Times.