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A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON THE LIFE OF AN AFGHAN REFUGEE

Who on earth is Sahraa?

IT WAS last year around this time that the Iranian film Daughters of the Sun, which depicted the problems women face in Iran, won the award for best film at the International Film Festival Bratislava. One of the leads in the film, Afghan actress Sahraa Karimi, who did not make it to last year's festival, later came to Slovakia, applied for asylum and has since settled here.
"I came here to forget what I disliked about my country," she says.
After spending half a year in a refugee camp, Sahraa was finally granted asylum in Slovakia. This year nothing stood in the way of her attending the festival (November 29 to December 7), which presented a new film about her.


DIRECTOR Martin Fazeli says making a gloomy documentary about a refugee is easy.
photo:Silvia Pinterová

IT WAS last year around this time that the Iranian film Daughters of the Sun, which depicted the problems women face in Iran, won the award for best film at the International Film Festival Bratislava. One of the leads in the film, Afghan actress Sahraa Karimi, who did not make it to last year's festival, later came to Slovakia, applied for asylum and has since settled here.

"I came here to forget what I disliked about my country," she says.

After spending half a year in a refugee camp, Sahraa was finally granted asylum in Slovakia. This year nothing stood in the way of her attending the festival (November 29 to December 7), which presented a new film about her.

The documentary, entitled Who is Sahraa?, was produced by Slovak Vicky Novosadová and directed by Iranian-Canadian director Martin Fazeli. The film features shots of Sahraa's current life combined with footage from her previous film Daughters of the Sun.

Fazeli decided to present the topic from a different perspective to other documentaries about refugees, which usually follow the refugee's journey from start to end. He wanted to show what exile was like. As a result, we do not learn much about Sahraa and her life from the documentary, but through her constant presence on screen, we begin to realize what exile is like.

"Exile is living in fragments," the director explains. "It is fragmental but not chaotic. It develops around a central theme."


SAHRAA rarely laughs.
photo:Silvia Pinterová

Following this concept, the documentary shows the life of an exile in fragments - short independent moments - interspersed with moments when the screen goes black and only a voice can be heard or text is shown. And it is all joined together by the central character - Sahraa. "The outspoken, emotional Sahraa is simply everything the camera likes," Fazeli says.

But who is Sahraa really?

"I don't know," said Sahraa.

"We need to make nine more films together to find out," said Fazelli and then they both laughed.

Sahraa was born in Afghanistan but lived most of her life in Iran. She speaks Persian and is slowly learning English and Slovak. In Bratislava in February she will resume her study of architecture, which she began in Iran. However, she already knows she wants to become a filmmaker. She prays every day and reads the Koran. She is only 21.

"I feel much older than I look," she says. "I have had a difficult life."

According to Fazeli's translation of Sahraa's poetic Persian into straightforward English, she has been seeking freedom from the shackles of her life in Iran, where she, as a woman, had no rights. The festival enabled her to do that.

In addition, she is trying to reduce contact with her family, because, as she says, "a relationship is a kind of attachment, which is not good because it stops me from doing certain things."

Despite Sahraa's sad eyes, Fazeli's film proves that there is space for joy in exile, and that making a pessimistic and gloomy film about refugees is too easy. One can see his point when, in the film, he wants Sahraa to laugh and asks her to remember a happy story. Instead of laughing, she reveals a deep sadness.

It is interesting to watch Sahraa adapting to a new culture, how she closes her eyes when she sees a couple kissing in public, or how she behaves towards men, whom she at the moment hates. The funniest scenes are the ones shot when she thinks the camera is off. In one, she tells Fazelli that if she were the producer of the film he would be fired.

In the film Sahraa's animated gestures makes it clear that she knows what she wants and is willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish her goals despite the fact that her relatives would never approve of her actions.

"If I weren't Muslim, I would be a model," she says in one scene of the film and raises her middle finger to the camera. In Persian, though, this gesture means "great!"

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