By Yun-hua Chen.
Sonia Kronlund came to filmmaking by way of philosophy, criticism, and broadcasting. She studied philosophy at Sorbonne in Paris before developing a career as a French radio reporter. For 15 years she reported from Afghanistan about the war, as well as from Japan and Iran, while contributing reviews to Cahiers du Cinema. In 2017 she came to the Viennale with her first feature-length film Nothingwood, which premiered in Cannes earlier during the year. Nothingwood is an entertaining documentary about the prolific Afghan director Salim Shaheen, who self-produced and self-distributed 110 movies in war-torn Afghanistan. In Shaheen’s own words, there is Hollywood in the US and Bollywood in India, but “Nothingwood” in Afghanistan. Sonia Kronlund followed Shaheen and his crew and cast to fly from Kabul to Bamiyan to shoot scenes for Shaheen’s latest film. The unusual duo and the mise-en-abyme of films within films weave into an enchanting story about filmmaking in a country at war, a flamboyant filmmaker who continues making films despite lack resources and the adventure of Sonia Kronlund.
Yun-hua Chen had the chance of having a catch-up phone interview with Sonia Kronlund after the Viennale.
To give our readers a bit of a context, how did you come to the story of Salim Shaleen and eventually get to meet him in person?
I heard about him through a French-Afghan writer and director Atiq Rahimi who won the prestigious literary prize in France, Prix Goncourt, with his Syngué Sabour in 2008. Five or six years ago he brought me a DVD of Shaleen’s films one day. I thought that it could be funny. When I went to see him for the first time, I thought that it was more than funny. It could be a real story of a child wanting to be in a movie. We had dinner together and Shaleen talked to me a lot. He is interested in talking about anything related to himself and was very happy to meet up.
Was it difficult to persuade him to be filmed?
Not at all. It was very easy. He claimed that he had so many offers from all over the world, but it was not difficult to get him on board. He is a very honest man and there was no money negotiation or anything like that. I told him that it is a documentary and that we are not paying anybody for the documentary. He was ok with granting us the rights to use his film footage without any money. Not many people go to Kabul and make this kind of projects, so he was happy for us to film. In fact, he would do anything that I asked.
Including your suggestion of filming of his own story in his latest film project, as you mentioned in Vienna, right?
Yes, it took me a long time to figure this one out. In the beginning I was thinking about doing re-enactment like in The Act of Killing and some more sophisticated stuff, but then I realised it was too difficult. The thing is that he would come and direct my team himself after five minutes. He wouldn’t let me give any instructions to any of his actors. So I thought, let him do his thing and his show. He didn’t really understand what I was doing, but he didn’t care either.
That’s what makes Nothingwood so interesting too. There are many different layers of films inside; there is your film Nothingwood and there is his film. There is your role in his film and his role in your film.
Yes, it is a mess, just like Kabul. It’s a bit chaotic, but everything is chaotic in Afghanistan. There you don’t have the sense of copyright or film authors and who is filming the film. Sometimes he would be talking about my film and said, “this is one of the most difficult movies I have ever made”. During the shooting he was in command, but in the editing room I was in command.
How did you reconstruct the story in the editing room? What were other paths that you could have taken and you didn’t?
So many. Everything was really really tough. It took seven months. There were three editors. It burned me out. There was so much footage from six, seven weeks of shooting in Kabul and five days of shooting in Bamiyan. I had to take out almost everything I shot in Kabul and keep the five days of shooting in Bamiyan in order to tell the story of travelling to Bamiyan together and then coming back – for the sake of narration. So I had to get rid of some characters and some really nice scenes in Kabul because they didn’t fit in the trip to Bamiyan. So, it took a very long time.
At some point of editing, the film sounded too funny because we were joking around and it looked as if we were all carefree. For me during the editing it was about finding the balance between this crazy guy in the middle of nowhere and a country at war. Finding a real balance of the two ends was not easy. Also, I shouldn’t be too much on the screen or too little. It was very difficult. I had to watch the film so many times, so I don’t want to see it again anymore (laughs).
You also mentioned in the Viennale that the story of Salim Shaheen showed how filmmaking is a basic human desire of expression. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
It’s the idea that you need pictures of yourself. You need representations of yourself. I think the film is answering these questions. Why do these guys in an ongoing war without any money make fiction films and why do people watch these films? It is because we all need images. There is another story that I like and that I can tell you. The first time I was in Kabul it was under Taliban. They had forbidden any images of living beings. There were no images of human beings on the television and so on because they were all forbidden. At the moment I arrived in Kabul, a bunch of young Taliban men immediately asked me to take a picture of themselves. I said that it was forbidden. They said, yes it was forbidden, but take it anyway. I think people need images of themselves. They need a memory.
Cinema as a means of documenting one’s own existence is very interesting. Do you think it is a lesson for the rest world where cinema was considered luxury and an expensive form of art?
Exactly – cinema is not a luxury. We could consider that it was leisure or hobby or whatever in our side of the world. But, we could see in these people in Kabul that cinema is a necessity. That’s what I like about it .
You were a film critic in Cahiers du Cinema. Does the transition of roles from a film critic to a filmmaker affect your way of viewing filmmaking?
I did a PhD in aesthetics, in Department of Philosophy, so I have always been interested in aesthetics. I was not a very good film critic, I have to say. Being a film critic consists of watching a lot of bad films, and I don’t have patience for that. I am interested in the process of understanding when you could call it art when it is not art. I have always been interested in the reception of what is art. Some filmmakers would make their films without caring about who is watching them. In my case I am very very interested in the reaction of the public. I am not doing it for myself to express myself. I would want the audience to be receptive.
This question has probably been asked a lot, but as a woman I have to ask it again. How did you feel as a woman filmmaker from western Europe filming in Afghanistan?
I never had problems as a woman because they did not look at me as a woman. I am a foreign person and don’t fit into their categories. With Shaheen’s friends and actors, no one really sees me as a woman. It’s a chance to be a foreign woman filmmaker in Afghanistan because you could approach women but you are also side by side with men to work together. It’s just perfect to be a foreign woman. There was no competition because there were no other women. I spent a lot of time with women without men’s presence, but the thing is that I could not film them. Filming is another story because they were afraid that these images, whether filmed by men or women, would go somewhere and get seen by men. From this perspective, whether I am a man or a woman, it doesn’t make any difference. I am a filmmaker and that’s all.
I found Salim Shaheen’s flamboyant presence on stage in Cannes really interesting. Did his experience in Cannes change his filmmaking or way of living in Afghanistan?
He said that this didn’t change anything because he was already so famous all over the world. That’s what he officially said. What changed for him a lot is his social position in Afghanistan. People would take him more seriously in Afghanistan because he has been to Cannes.
In the Viennale during the Q&A you mentioned that the actor who always dressed up as women to played roles of women in Shaheen’s films did not return to Afghanistan after the trip to Cannes. Can you tell us more about the story?
After Cannes, he didn’t take the flight back to Afghanistan when the whole team was flying back. He ran away. The family actually encouraged him to stay here in France because they considered it as an opportunity to be able to stay in Europe. Some people would die in the Mediterranean Sea, but he could come by flying and he got a visa. Now he is in Paris seeking asylum. I think he will get it. Where he came from was a very constrained society. Now he is in Europe and it is like an open bar for him. I think he can get a bit lost because it is too easy and everything is possible. So I am a bit worried about him. I saw him a couple of weeks ago when I did a screening for the Afghan refugees in Paris. It was the nicest screening I have ever had. They were so responding, laughing, reacting, and dancing at the end of the film. It was so wonderful. It was like in the film again, with Afghan guys watching my films with the same eyes and same zeal with which they were watching Shaheen’s films.
Have you shown Nothingwood in Afghanistan?
No, I have not shown it in Afghanistan. There is no opportunity. Movie theatres would not invite me. The French Institut had an attack, so the French Embassy was closed.
Would you like to show your film in the way Salim Shaheen shows his films?
Yes if I’d love to. The problem is that we have copyright and they don’t have any copyright. If I give him the film, it’s going to go on the internet immediately. We have to wait until the film gets released in the country and then see what we can do. I would like to organise something special in Afghanistan.
I read that Nothingwood was also screened at the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taipei.
I was supposed to go to Taiwan for the Golden Horse Film Festival, but my passport got stolen in the airport. Everything was ready. I read everything about Taipei and got meetings arranged, and then my passport got stolen. That’s a pity. There is a distributor in Taiwan and they will release the film after the Golden Horse.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.