As the furore over the cancellation escalated, the Afghan parliament summoned information and culture minister Sayed Makhdum Rahin, who has oversight over such events. Both he and the state-run agency Afghan Film denied they had banned the film, called “Madrassa”, while the Iranian embassy said it had no hand in the decision.
The allegations of Iranian interference, made by filmmakers and a member of parliament, reflect widespread suspicions about the behind-the-scenes role Tehran plays in Afghan politics.
“Madrassa” depicts the struggle of an Afghan refugee as he tries to enrol his daughter in Iranian schools, which repeatedly shut their doors on her. The film shows Iranians treating the father with contempt because he is Afghan, and eventually imprisoning and torturing him.
The film should have been shown in Kabul in mid-October, but was halted at the last minute.
Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament for Kabul, believes the film was cancelled because of Iranian diplomatic pressure, and accused the Afghan government of surrendering to this kind of interference.
The Iranian embassy in Kabul did not answer IWPR’s repeated requests for a comment on the issue, but Afghanistan’s Tolo TV quoted it as denying any involvement.
The incident angered local film-makers, including Asad Sekandar, the head of the company which made “Madrassa”, who said cancelling it was a breach of freedom of expression.
Jawansher Haidari, head of the Afghanistan Cinema Association, called the decision unlawful and undemocratic. The proper procedure was to raise a complaint with Afghanistan’s media watchdog, not to censor films in advance, he said.
“Madrassa” is not the only film to spark controversy recently. Several movies at a human rights film festival last month in the northern Balkh province prompted rowdy protests.
Although the protesters were ostensibly unhappy about content they claimed was un-Islamic, the festival’s organiser Malek Shafii said he suspected this was not the real target. He claimed pro-Iranian networks in Balkh orchestrated the protests to stop other films being shown.
“Some students at Balkh university’s faculty of Shariah law and religion were hired for this purpose, and disrupted the festival by staging protests against one or two films which had nothing wrong with them,” he said.
One of the films that was due to be shown, called “Neighbour”, was about a massacre of Afghans after a riot at a refugee camp in Iran. Its maker Zubair Farghand said the protests against other films were actually a way of derailing his one.
“Because the film is based on a true story, the Iranian government has sought to prevent it from being screened by every means possible,” he said.
Those involved in disrupting film showings insisted their anger was directed only at the denigration of Islamic values. The screening of “Paper Boats”, in which a widow is befriended by a mullah, was interrupted by chants of “Allahu Akbar” and had to be stopped.
Student Mohammad Jamshed said he found “Paper Boats” genuinely offensive, as it showed “an imam at a mosque displaying sexual interest in a woman…. How can a Muslim tolerate that?”
However, another member of the audience, Sohrab Sirat, said the story the film actually told was how a war widow’s faith in humanity was restored by a mullah. He too believed the expressions of outrage were merely a ploy to stop “Neighbours”, with its Iranian content, being seen at the festival.
Festival organiser Shafii insisted that all the films on the programme had been vetted and approved in advance by a commission that included a culture ministry representative. Saleh Mohammad Khaliq, the provincial head of culture and information, said this was not the case and his department had not been informed about the festival.
Maiwand, a commentator on cultural affairs in Balkh, said Iran had been building a presence in the province since Taleban rule ended in 2001, by setting up religious schools, libraries and charities, and funding local media. He urged Afghanistan’s western allies to counter what he said was covert Iranian activity in the province.