It is a chilly Friday morning — the Afghan weekend — but Salim Shaheen, Afghanistan’s “Sultan of Cinema”, has graciously agreed to meet for a chat in his middle-class downtown Kabul neighbourhood. It’s a kidnap danger zone and foreigners are encouraged to take taxis rather than wander the streets. In late September, a suicide bomber attacked a Shiite mosque less than a kilometre from Shaheen’s studio, killing six people.
In the face of perpetual threat, the director, producer and actor extraordinaire has carried Afghanistan’s film industry for more than two decades almost single-handed. Despite being barely educated, Shaheen has made more than 100 films: a variety of gaudy action and martial arts flicks, with plenty of melodrama and a lot of singing, always shot on a shoestring, mostly in Kabul but occasionally against a spectacular Afghan landscape. He is one of Afghanistan’s biggest celebrities and its only film star — you find his DVDs in roadside stalls throughout the country, and he boasts of having fans even among the Taliban.
And now he is the subject of a film himself. Shaheen and his calico crew (a mixture of lifelong friends and his own relatives) are the newly minted heroes of The Prince of Nothingwood, a terrific documentary directed by renowned French filmmaker Sonia Kronlund, out this month after a strong showing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
“The cinema industry in Afghanistan receives no help from government, from any organisation and no one has ever paid any attention to us,” Shaheen tells me. “That is why I call us Nothingwood.” Born into a wealthy family in Kabul, Shaheen is the son of an army commander — “a war hero,” he says, “who could find thieves and killers because he just knew”. Both his father and grandfather disapproved of cinema as a frivolous distraction and Shaheen says he was sneaking out from the age of eight to a drive-in cinema park near his home to watch Indian star Dharmendra, his idol.
He made his first film aged 16 — an action movie called Invictus, using an old Z7 camera. “I spent 250 Afghanis (Dh13) making it in black and white with no sound.” He jokes about trying to flog copies for twice the amount it cost him to produce — and discovered that people actually loved it, and bought him out. “My family were pleased that at 16 I was earning money!”
At the time, says Shaheen, “no one was making cinema in Afghanistan. This is a poor country. We had only famous movies from India. I wanted to make famous Afghan cinema here.” So he recruited his friends to become his film crew and cast, and worked in a VHS store to raise money to make films. Soon, he was making promotional videos for small businesses, and using these earnings to churn out feature films.
But while he made a career out of selling cartoon violence to his compatriots, very real violence was engulfing his country. Once, in 1996, a stray rocket landed in the midst of Shaheen and his crew while they were filming, killing 10 people, including several actors. Shaheen was wounded by shrapnel and his cameraman partly blinded but, instead of rushing to hospital, the survivors filmed the devastation, determined not to abandon their set. They still have the tragic footage to prove it. “My slogan is death or cinema since my childhood,” Shaheen says. “I am not scared to die.” It is a maxim echoed by co-star and assistant Farid Mohibi, who sits beside him. “We know we are crazy,” he says. “But cinema is our life.”
Shaheen was already high profile by the time the Taliban took control of Kabul in September 1996 and banned all entertainment. Soon after, the militants came after him demanding the guns they had seen him use on screen. He escaped and fled to Pakistan in 1997 with his wife, having several children and continuing to make movies there, before returning to his home country in 2004 after the overthrow of the Taliban But he is still a target, he says, especially today, with the Taliban resurgent. “They are still waiting for me,” he chuckles.
The first feature film he made on his return to Afghanistan became a national blockbuster. With a title roughly translating to Debt, the premise, Shaheen explains, involved a family feud intertwined with the smuggling of precious minerals out of the country. “My movie subjects are narcotics, violence against women, social threats, kidnapping and the trade in body parts... Sometimes if I don’t have a good relationship with the government, it is because I try to expose these issues for the public.”
He says that Debt highlights corruption among the ruling elite and armed groups, and that he received death threats from certain businessmen after its release. He still has crooked officials attempting to bribe him to steer clear of topics such as fraud and extortion but is quick to denounce, then ignore, such threats: “When people have called me and said ‘We will kill you if you continue’, I say ‘Do it as soon as possible’.”
Not that his films are altogether worthy. He is in the business of making money after all, and they are designed to entertain above all else. “When I bring song and dance and action into my movies to entertain the youth of this country it is because they need it,” he says. “There are few opportunities for them.”
Today, he has a big family to support: two wives and many sons and daughters. Four of his sons, including his eight-year-old, have starred in their father’s films — but not one of his daughters. “Some mullahs [Islamic preachers] are against women performing,” he explains. “Two times I danced with a woman on film and the Afghan parliament told me to stop this.”
Such strictures mean that women only appear in bit parts in his films. His way of getting around the issue? His leading lady is a 6-feet cross-dressing father-of-four named Qurban Ali.
Ali wafts into shot during a moment in the documentary wearing nail polish, lipstick and a burka, at which point Shaheen laughs: “You look like my mum!”
Shaheen’s film shoots look like barely contained chaos, and the crew attract attention wherever they go, which in Afghanistan can be deadly if the wrong people take offence or the group strays into a contested area.
“When we were filming, there was no possibility of controlling security because there was no knowing what [Shaheen] is doing, he changes his mind every second!”, says Sonia Kronlund, when I speak to her about making The Prince of Nothingwood. She first came across Shaheen eight years ago after a French-Afghan writer gave her one of his DVDs. “When I met him in Kabul he started telling me about his childhood, and I realised there was more to his story than just this tacky, funny guy,” she says.
Kronlund has since become deeply invested in the crew, and secured visas for them all to visit Cannes in May. However, when the time came to return to Kabul after the festival, Ali had vanished. Apparently he has been dancing with a troop of refugees in Paris ever since.
“At some point I hope he will get asylum and can bring his family over from Afghanistan,” she says.
The danger for Shaheen and his family is very real. But the actor has no plans to flee his country again: “There are many countries that would accept my asylum claim,” he says, “but I am staying here... I will remain with my people.”
Asked what he would do with an unlimited film budget, Shaheen says it would obviously be an action movie about Afghanistan. “The real face of Afghanistan! We are not terrorists. We are just like Europeans. And I would cast Rambo and Jackie Chan in this movie because I want them to come here to feel the hospitality and love.”