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Kabul Camera

By Natalie Pompilio, Photos by Joel Van Houdt

Published Jul 1, 2013 8:00 AM

Filmmaker Tarique Qayumi M.F.A. '10 often finds inspiration in his experiences growing up as an Afghan refugee in the West. He's just completed his first feature film, a drama shot in the U.S. and Afghanistan that addresses the themes of belonging and identity. Now back in Kabul, where his Afghan television series has been broadcast for an unprecedented third time, Qayumi is still searching for a place to call home.


Q: You and your parents were refugees of the Afghan-Russian war and you left for Canada, with forged passports, when you were 8. How did that experience shape you?

A It made me aware that you could lose anything at any second, that everything is impermanent. But that's a good thing; it's not a bad thing.

Q: After 25 years, you've returned to your home country. What are the biggest changes you see in Afghanistan?

A: I don't know if we recognize it as the country we left. I remember going to Pakistan and my mom having to wrap herself up, with these big sunglasses on; she couldn't show any skin. That was the first instance of us seeing this religious conservatism, and coming back to Afghanistan after all these years, that same culture had come to Afghanistan.

And the destruction. This place has really seen war, and you couldn't really recognize things. And the corruption. Back then, there was hardly any corruption\ and now it's just the way to do business. My parents grew up in what I call the golden ages of Afghanistan, the '60s and '70s, and you had these stories of travelers coming through and backpacking and it was this place that was fantastic, like this Shangri-La up in the mountains. When I went there, it had lost some of that myth. It was mythical in another way, as a dangerous place. People are not that proud of being Afghan anymore, and that hurts.

Q: What drew you to filmmaking?

A: One thing my past has really made me realize is I have a life story, and I love stories. I see the world in terms of stories.

Q: What was your first film?

A: I came into UCLA as a screenwriter, not a filmmaker. What happened was after first year, I went to see all the student films and I thought about making movies myself because the kind of stories I'm going to tell, it would be hard to find someone to direct them. In the summer of 2007, I made a short film I'd written about two brothers, this family of Afghans who lived in America. It was called The Sword of Truth.


Q: How did UCLA shape you as a storyteller?

A: Most programs you go into, and I did some research, you come out with one script or two scripts. I came out of UCLA with, I think, 11 scripts and two TV pilots. It's the volume of writing you do and also the techniques you learn. I found out that writing scripts is like writing a structured poem, like a sonnet. You can't capture that structure unless you write a lot, and [when] you write a lot you start getting the beats. That's it. That's UCLA's secret: Just write a lot.

Q: Tell us about Rah E Haqiqat (Truth Unveiled), Afghanistan's first crime docudrama, which you wrote and directed for Afghan TV.

A: People here have never seen docudramas before. The reaction was like, "Holy crap. What is that?"

The whole thing is being reenacted, but to this day, I have people who argue with me, "Why didn't you save that kid's life? You're there with a camera, why didn't you do anything?" I say, "This is re-created!" And I have cab drivers yelling at me, "No, it wasn't!"

On other Afghan TV shows, the cop would be like, "Stop assault! Thou shalt not move!" Because they want to formalize everything on TV and there's a huge difference between colloquial language and formal language. It sounds ridiculous and the actors are just fumbling over their words. That was the first thing I changed. On my show, it's like, "Freeze!" It's just really raw. We're not allowed to swear, but they talk colloquially and it's real.

Q: In the past, you've written that, for you, the most fundamental question is one of identity and where you belong, in Afghanistan or in Canada. What answers have you found?

A: I don't really know. When I'm here, I feel more Afghan. When I'm there, I feel more Canadian.

Q: Your latest project is Targeting, your first feature film, about a female American soldier who returns home from war. You wrote the film with two fellow Bruins, Alan de la Rosa M.F.A. '10 and Joey Patterson M.F.A. '12. Will this movie be the bridge between East and West you've long sought after?

A: Growing up, I've always been confused about my identity. I think that's a good confusion, and going back to Afghanistan for the past two years has really helped with that. I think those themes are definitely in there. You know what, why it works is soldiers coming back feel the same thing that any kind of immigrant would feel coming to this country. What am I doing here? Why am I here? What is this place?

Q: What's next?

A: I want to shoot a feature film in Afghanistan. And I teach a lot of film students in Afghanistan. I'm one of the only people [in the country] who has had formal training. One of my goals is to take all the things I've learned at UCLA and teach as many people as are willing to listen. I want to help the next generation make great Afghan films.

For more information about Tarique Qayumi's work, visit: