Sahraa Karimi (left), who recently became the first woman head of Afghanistan's state-run film production company, and Mehrad Oskoee, an Iranian documentary filmmaker, light candles at a ceremony to mourn the death of award-winning director Abbas Kiarostami. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

Exclusive: Afghanistan Appoints Woman to Head State-run Film Company

Sahraa Karimi is the only woman in the country to have obtained a PhD in cinema

[Islamabad] The Afghan government has appointed the first female director-general for its state-run film production company, Afghan Film Organization (AFO).

Sahraa Karimi, 36, is a prominent filmmaker in her own right. She has more than 10 years of experience in the field and has directed more than 30 films. She is the only woman from Afghanistan to have earned a doctorate in cinema.

Nadir Nadiry, who chairs Afghanistan’s Civil Service Commission, told The Media Line that Karimi had been selected through a pure merit-based process overseen by the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission.

The Media Line spoke exclusively with Karimi.

“I was born into an ethnic Persian-speaking family in 1983 in Kabul. My family was forced to migrate to Iran as the Taliban had barred girls from getting an education, and my father was keen to educate his daughter,” she told The Media Line.

(In reality, it was the second time her family left Afghanistan; the first came just after she was born, when her parents felt she would have a brighter future elsewhere.)

At 17, she graduated high school in Tehran and saw that as a migrant from Afghanistan, “I was deprived of everything I had worked so hard to achieve. There was no reason for me to stay. I wanted to go somewhere I would have an identity and could pursue my dreams. So I migrated to Slovak Republic.”

She spent 12 years there studying for her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in film and directing. Her PhD in cinema is from the Academy of Music and Performing Arts, Film and TV in Bratislava.

“I returned in 2012, where I co-founded a multimedia house,” she related. “Our films are mostly about civil rights issues faced by women in war-torn Afghanistan.”

Her feature film “Afghan Women Behind the Wheel” has received some 25 awards from major film festivals around the globe. The film she made as part of her doctoral studies, “Light Breeze,” won the Slovak National Film Award.

“War has affected Afghanistan’s cinema in terms of production, but our films can be very rich in terms of content because our country is full of colorful stories,” Karimi said.

She says that people in Afghanistan have been making films for close to a century, ever since Kin Amanullah Shah brought cinematography to the country. Unfortunately, war and other conflicts have kept the industry in a recession.

She related that there were only three or four female filmmakers in Afghanistan.

“There are also a few actresses who are young and talented, but unfortunately, there is no official mechanism through which they can groom their talent,” she told The Media Line. “Despite the total lack of facilities, the females are doing their best. They have even participated in international film festivals and earned prizes.”

Her father is now deceased, and her mother and sister live in Canada. She is living with her brother in Afghanistan.

In all, she has actively been engaged in film-making in Afghanistan for the past six years, producing and directing 30 short fiction films, two documentaries and a feature-length work of fiction. She is also the only Afghan filmmaker who is an active member of the Slovak Film and TV Academy.

“Afghan Women Behind the Wheel,” about a number of women whose sole ambition was to drive in a conservative society, won for best documentary film during the 13th Dhaka International Film Festival in Bangladesh.

“I was the only female filmmaker from Afghanistan who spoke on behalf of Afghanistan in Dhaka,” she said.

Karimi told The Media Line that she was one of five people who competed for the post of director-general of the AFO – and the only woman. She stated that her primary goal would be to increase public funding for the country’s film industry.

“I will try to provide the conditions for film-making so that other filmmakers can tell the stories of our country because if we [ourselves] do not tell the stories, other people will do it wrong,” Karimi said. “This industry is not about making money or achieving fame. It is about telling the truth, sharing history, expressing it all.”

Mujtaba Khalilzad, an official from Afghanistan’s Cultural Ministry, told The Media Line that in recent years, due to the devastating conflict in the country, the AFO has not been functioning.

“The AFO building has been taken over by British officials because it is situated in Kabul’s red zone, next door to the US Embassy,” Khalilzad said. “The new director-general is a talented lady and she will run the show successfully.”

Angelina Jolie, the Hollywood actress and a special envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, sent a letter to Karimi, calling her appointment a historic achievement for women in Afghanistan.

“I was moved to hear of your recent historic appointment as director-general of the Afghan Film [Organization]. I wanted to write to congratulate you on your remarkable achievement. Afghanistan is very close to my heart and I can imagine how much your appointment means to your fellow countrywomen in particular,” Jolie wrote.

The actress pledged to support Karimi’s efforts for the country’s filmmaking industry.

“If there are ways that I or my office can support your efforts, and film-making in Afghanistan, I hope you will let me know,” Jolie wrote.

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