by Judith Kelly
When the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, I searched for news about Shahrbanoo Sadat, a young filmmaker I had met during a Voices for Creative Nonviolence delegation in 2011. At first I found nothing, but two days later I read an agonizing online interview in The Hollywood Reporter. Shahrbanoo would only leave Kabul if she could arrange the daunting logistics for nine members of her family. And she made this pledge: “If I survive this and I have the chance to make more films, my cinema will have changed forever,” she said. “I feel like I’m observing, I’m watching injustice and something really horrible, and I just need to save it in my body, remember it and put it in films later, to share it with the world. If I survive this, I will make films about what happened.”
If she survived.
When I met with Shahrbanoo Sadat ten years ago in Kabul, she was 21—radiant, engaging, and very impressive. We conversed over tea at the Open Society office. She enthusiastically spoke of her past film studies and collaborations with European colleagues. She would soon attend the Cannes Film Festival.
In my online search, I saw that “Shahr” had done well. She had made two well-received feature films, Wolf and Sheep and The Orphanage, creating authentic Afghan stories about rural village life to counteract negative Hollywood stereotypes. Would her creative odyssey continue? At that harrowing moment, her personal drama kept me awake. I continuously searched for updates for a week. Had she gotten out?
On August 23, there was a terse press release by a Danish production company: Shahrbanoo Sadat and her family had managed to fly out of Kabul to Abu Dhabi and on to an undisclosed destination in Europe. I felt great relief that she and her family were safe, though I knew that this would clearly be another major disruption in their lives.
When we had met, Shahr told me of her parents’ escape to Iran during the Soviet invasion in 1979, her birth in Tehran in 1990, and her elementary school years when she became a top student. “We lived in a special situation, and you get your character from the society you live in,” she said, though she felt confused regarding identity: “Are we Afghan or Iranian?” Maybe a hybrid best of both?
When the Iranian policy of free education for Afghan refugees ended, her family left for her parents’ Afghan village in the mountains near Bamiyan. At the age of 10, Shahr was shocked by the harsh reality. “It was like a desert for us,” she said. There was no school. “From age 11 to 13, I had some books and taught myself English,” she said, and she sought permission to attend school in a distant village, walking 3 ½ hours through the mountains every day just to mark her attendance. She did her studying at home, completing two years in one. Recalling her stamina and determination, she smiled at her own achievements: “How much energy I had then!”
With help from her married sister, Shahr finished high school in Kabul and enrolled in university. Her life then took another unexpected turn: “After two days in university, a group came looking for an actress for a lead role in a Tolo television series.” That part opened doors for her. She worked briefly as an accounts manager for top-rated Tolo TV, until she applied for a three-month workshop on documentary filmmaking sponsored by a French group. At 19, she went on to study in France and Germany. She met other young filmmakers from around the world, the beginning of her love of global solidarity.
Shahrbanoo told me her name means “City Lady” or “Princess.” Her energy and optimism are a vivid Kabul memory for me, and a symbol of Afghan potential. I believe that Shahr’s Danish friends helped arrange the flight out for the Sadat family who are now in France.
A Danish connection seems quite fitting. As Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote: “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!”
May the ever young and ardent Shahrbanoo Sadat continue to meet the challenges of exile. May her career rise with her keen eye for all that is possible—for herself, her family, and for all of Afghanistan.
Judith Kelly is a longtime member of Pax Christi USA from the D.C. Metro area. She has traveled to conflict zones on human rights delegations since the early 1990s. Pax Christi Metro D.C.-Baltimore honored her with their Peacemaker of the Year award in 2014. See the 2011 Summer Peace Current with Judith Kelly’s reflection on her March 2011 delegation to Afghanistan. Kelly’s book, Just Call Me Jerzy, chronicles the witness of Solidarity Chaplain Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko.