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Afghan woman director's 'A Letter To The President' wins prizes and attention at film festival in France
Afghanistan is going through a transitional period says film maker Roya Sadat. Her feature in competition at the International Festival of Asian Film in Vesoul, France, shows the clash between strict tradition and broader choice. The film won the FICA Audience Award, the High-School Jury Award, and special mentions from the International Jury and Jury representing the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC).
The International Jury at FICA this year gave A Letter to the President a special mention for coming "at a critical time when the world no longer wants to remain silent on the systemic mistreatment of women. The film manages to let some semblance of hope crawl into its world despite the bleakness of its premise through the gripping performance of its lead actress,who even with her relatively high stature in society, is subjected to the same abuse from patriarchal figures."
The NETPAC Jury didn't catch the same glimpse of hope in this French première, but also gave a special mention to Sadat's for "its vivid drama of the plight of women struggling against a country's partriarchal traditions set amidst in corruption and lawlessness revealing that change might not be forthcoming soon. "
Called up four times on stage to enthusiastic applause, director Sadat said, "I'm very happy that 'The Letter to the President' has become a letter to all those who have seen it." She dedicated her awards and special mentions "to all Afghan women."
For several years, campaigners in and around the film industry, most noticeably in Hollywood, but also in France and elsewhere, have been vociferous about raising the profile and number of female film directors.
Their efforts have paid off and the industry has begun to make more space for, and to encourage, women film makers.
However, it’s easier to make a noise in some places than others. Amongst the latter is Afghanistan where director Sadat works with her husband Aziz Dildar and where they have their own production company.
A Letter to the President (Namiye Ba Rahess Gomhor) in Dari and Farsi, was shot in Afghanistan, indoors and out, it stars Leena Alam as Soraya, a chief police inspector who lands up on death row after being accused of killing her husband. Soraya writes to the President, who, counselled by his wife, agrees to hear her story.
As the film unfolds, former law student Sadat also tells a story of political power. The plot actually rests on the power struggle between the official authorities and the local elders in the countryside, as well as former warlords and the Taliban. Soraya’s faux-pas, in the eyes of her father-in-law and thus her husband, is that she defends a teenage girl married to a much older man accused of adultery and who is bent on killing his young spouse.
Soraya is then forced to choose between her work, and her husband and her two children.
Meanwhile, the film has attracted attention for one particular scene which may be a spoiler for those who have the chance to watch A Letter to the President.
It's the slap-on-the-stairs scene where Soraya responds in kind to her violent and alcoholic husband who lands one on her face in front of, and to please, his father, her father-in-law.
It took about seven years to get the film into production after completing the script.
“We’d received funding offers from some producers at workshops at film festivals outside Afghanistan. Then there were three suicide attacks, not in Kabul where we live, they were far from there, but the producers said security was a problem. So we decided we would make the film ourselves... Moby Productions helped us.”
In spite of the difficult circumstances, Sadat never forgets her film is a work of art. The camera plays with screens and veils, shades of shadows and light, textures like old stone, metal, fabric and sand.
A love of cinema and a strong hope of change in Afghan society, especially through culture and with the advent of a younger generation give Sadat and Dildar the determination to continue.
Their faith in cinema to help bring about change goes beyond their own films, as they a few years ago they launched an annual Womens’ film festival in Afghanistan .