"Opium War": The Middle-Eastern Context By Senem Aytaç

in 28th Istanbul International Film Festival

by Senem Aytac

At the 28th International Istanbul Film Festival, the Istanbul-based film monthly “Altyazi” and the New York-based international nonprofit organization “ArteEast”, supporting and promoting Middle Eastern artists, held a panel entitled “Talks on Middle Eastern Cinemas: Cinema During Occupation”. Moderated by “Altyazi’s” Övgü Gökçe, the panel featured Siddiq Barmak, whose latest film Opium War was screened beforehand; Necati Sönmez, a Turkish critic and documentary filmmaker whose recent film The Wound of Gaza was featured at the festival, and Beirut’s Rasha Salti, the creative director of “ArteEast”, a writer and curator.

This was “Altyazi” and “ArteEast’s” first attempt to create a venue for public debate on Middle Eastern cinema — on issues such as the conditions of filmmaking in areas of conflict, the distribution and exhibition of these films around the world, and the perception of these films, including the representation of Middle Eastern characters and/or the Middle East in films directed by people from other countries, especially from the United States.

In this context, Barmaq’s case is an interesting one, for he is the first filmmaker to direct a feature-length work entirely within Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. But what’s more interesting is how that film, Osama — a film about the Taliban regime, arriving just after the United States’ invasion of Iraq — was used as propaganda by the Bush government to justify the United States’ actions.

The other side of the coin is that since he is one of the few regional directors known to the world, Barmak is able to make films in Afghanistan for the international audience without having to obey the prohibitions that the political and religious authorities try to impose on others. As he himself stated during the panel, the authorities were forced to step back when he explained they would be accountable to the international media if they didn’t allow him to shoot his film.

This is how we got to see his second feature, Opium War, a drama about two American soldiers whose helicopter got crashed near an opium field in the midst of the desert. The “white” officer has a wounded leg and has to be carried by the “colored” soldier, treating him as his “slave”. On their way, they see an old Soviet tank; from the white flag on it, they conclude it belongs to the Taliban and they start shooting. But it turns out that there is only an Afghani family living inside the tank, trying to survive by selling the opium they produce.

This family — living in an abandoned Soviet tank, attacked by the American soldiers, constantly being exploited by the Taliban — stands for the ordinary people whose lives have been altered, stolen or destroyed by various outside forces since the day they were born. Particularly through the children and the American soldiers who get high on opium while trying to dull their pain, the film uses a sort of dark humor to tell its story. Trying not to demonize the American soldiers (while still making a statement about America’s own racial issues), it aims to point out that each party involved in this war on ‘opium’ has its own victims. The crippled newborn left in an UN basket at the end of the film underlines the hopeless and ruined future for the country as well in the end.
With its simplified symbolism and not-so-subtle dialogues, Barmak’s film may not be a very refined example of cinema, but it is an important example of a cinema that has yet to find a foundation to express its feelings and tell its own stories in its own language.

The question remains: In the conflict zones, how can one find the means and ends to speak about one’s own problems and emotions?