“Sonia Nassery Cole knew that shooting a movie on location in Afghanistan could get her killed. The most vivid reminder came a few weeks before filming, she said, when militants located her leading actress and cut off both of her feet,” says a New York Times article about a new film on Afghanistan, The Black Tulip, that just premiered in Kabul. The bit about the amputation in this opening paragraph has gotten Ms. Cole, an Afghan born activist/director/actor who grew up in the US, in trouble. Questions about the legitimacy of her project and the intentions behind it are spiraling.
Three days after the piece was printed in the New York Times, the paper added this correction:
Correction: September 24, 2010An article on Wednesday about an Afghan-American film director’s efforts to shoot a feature film in Afghanistan reported that the director, Sonia Nassery Cole, said she took the leading role in her film after the actress she had cast had her feet cut off by militants. The local casting director and Latif Ahmadi, head of the Afghan Film Organization, corroborated Ms. Cole’s account for the article. After the article appeared, questions were raised about the assertion, and in a followup article today on Page A10, Mr. Ahmadi contradicts his support of Ms. Cole’s assertion, characterizing it as “just propaganda for the film.”
Rod Nordland had a beautiful follow-up piece in today’s times titled “Snickers and Skepticism Greet Premiere of Afghan Film.” He portrayed the local’s reaction to the film and raised more questions about the project.
It was meant to be a serious film about Afghanistan, by an Afghan-born director, set in present-day Kabul and even filmed on location here, but many of the Afghans who saw it said they did not recognize the society they knew.The movie tells the story of an Afghan woman who starts a family-run Bohemian cafe in Kabul, where they serve wine in teapots and have poetry readings, which angers the Taliban.
Leaving the content of the film aside, the central questions is about the claimed amputation of the leading actress. The whole account seems really shady. Ms. Cole, who ends up playing the leading role, claims that she only took up the acting part because the actress that she initially had in mind, named Zarifa Jahon, disappeared. Months later, she got a call from her. “Finally, she called me and she said, ‘You’ll never guess what happened. The Taliban chopped my feet off.’ ”
It is shady because Ms. Cole refuses to offer details on the actress, brushing the issue aside by saying “the woman begged her to leave her alone for her own safety.” And its shady because one of her strongest supporters on the ground, the head of Afghan Film, Eng. Latif Ahmadi, told the New York Times he did not believe in the story. “I think that’s just propaganda for the film,” Mr. Ahmadi said.
It seems even shadier because many in the local film industry, including Mr. Ahmadi who helped in casting the movie, told the New York Times they had never heard of an actress named Zarifa Jahon. And they have not heard of an actress who was amputated.
This whole episode makes one question: how much of this project is simply shameless self-promotion? There is nothing wrong with self-promotion– unless you make up blatant lies that defame and harm a people. I am no semi-loyalist here. I have no word of defense for the Taliban and I know they do horrible acts such as the one Ms. Cole claims. But something about Ms. Cole’s narrative sounds fishy. It just doesn’t add up.
Maybe I am a cynic. And I would love to be proven wrong, but for now this seems to me another episode of taking advantage only for the purpose of generating publicity.