Afghanistan’s Oscar Submission a Window Into Another World

January 18, 2011 Updated: January 18, 2011

ON LOCATION: Sonia Nassery Cole, on location in Afghanistan, directing the shooting of 'The Black Tulip.'(Courtesy of Breadwinner Productions)
ON LOCATION: Sonia Nassery Cole, on location in Afghanistan, directing the shooting of 'The Black Tulip.'(Courtesy of Breadwinner Productions)
NEW YORK—The Black Tulip, a story of a middle-class Afghan family struggling to have a normal life in Taliban-terrorized Afghanistan, is unusual not just because it was shot entirely on location amidst a war zone in Afghanistan. The woman who made the film, Sonia Nassery Cole, escaped Afghanistan as a young woman when it was under Russian suppression and has been fighting to make her country better ever since.

In a sense, Ms. Cole, who lives in Los Angeles and New York and has dual citizenship, has been working on The Black Tulip for most of her adult life. She describes the film as a “window on Afghanistan,” a country with a rich cultural heritage whose people have been decimated and terrorized by 30 years of war. We spoke recently in two separate conversations, in New York at her apartment and at a nearby restaurant.

“I wanted to show the Afghanistan I knew—the beauty, the sophistication, the way people treated each other,” said Cole, 45, about her motivation for making her film. “I wanted to put a light in that corner of the world.”

She says that she hopes the result will help people understand the reality of Afghanistan and not just have the mental image of men with guns and women wearing burqas when they think about the country.

“The end message for me was [to convey] the spirit of the Afghan people,” she said.

So far, The Black Tulip has only been shown in Afghanistan, invitation-only screenings at The New York Times and The Museum of Tolerance, the Directors Guild of America, and a one-week Oscar qualification release in Los Angeles. Arrangements for wider release showings are in progress.

But even without wide distribution, the film seems to have already accomplished conveying the spirit that Cole has worked so hard to express. It was named by the Afghan government as its official submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2011 Oscars. If it is shortlisted and wins, it will be the first time in Afghanistan’s history that the country has won an Oscar.

Afghanistan’s previously non-existent Oscar presence is directly related to the country’s problems with corruption and the listlessness of a once-thriving film industry. Cole found out firsthand that there’s good reason for this—shooting a film in a war zone where the Taliban still openly terrorizes people made her project uninsurable and unbondable. But she still put her personal financial stability on the line to make her movie.

“I’m not a traditionalist,” says Cole about her approach to getting things done once her mind is made up. “I don’t do anything by the book—it bores me. I’m crazy when it comes to doing things I’m passionate about, and movies and Afghanistan are my passion.”

Cole, who has studied acting, writing, and directing for 11 years, needed every inch of her bravado to make The Black Tulip, which she wrote, directed, and also produced. She also ended up playing a lead role after the woman she cast for the part was targeted by the Taliban for appearing in an anti-Taliban movie and both her feet were cut off as a consequence.

The actress’s fate also foreshadowed the enormous difficulty and danger Cole and her crew would face during their 24 days of shooting on location in Kabul and surrounding areas. They were harassed constantly by the Taliban, extorted, and survived a major earthquake, suicide bombings, and extremely difficult living conditions. Cole said the constant threatening phone calls she got were enough to be unnerving, but they weren’t enough to stop her.              

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