It takes a certain skill to lose money on an opium field in Afghanistan. Afghan filmmaker Siddiq Barmak lost about $97,000 on his. For the making of his latest film, Opium War, which is set in a poppy field, Barmak had found the perfect site a lonely hilltop in central Afghanistan, framed by the snow-covered peaks of nearby mountains. With the stunning vision of pink poppies swaying against the slopes of the Hindu Kush in mind, he finally obtained permission from the government to plant the illegal crop. Then he and his crew got to work building the set. At the first spring rain they planted the poppy seeds and started filming. Poppy-eradication teams tried to eliminate his set. Twice. Then the rains stopped. Poppies need water, and Barmak's hilltop had none. He dug a well. He brought in water tankers from 20 miles (30 km) away. Still, the crop failed, producing only a handful of limp blooms. Then a dog, specially trained for a key role in the movie, fell off a roof and died. (Read "Is the Taliban Stockpiling Opium?")
Opium War, Afghanistan's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars and the follow-up to Barmak's Osama, which won a Golden Globe in 2004, is a black comedy. Barmak wasn't expecting the making-of story to be quite as absurd. Still, he is sanguine. "All these disasters, this struggle and search, that's what making a film is all about," says the 46-year-old director. "It's the perfect parable for Afghanistan: nothing ever works the way you think it will."
Which, in a way, is what Opium War is all about. The film follows the story of two American soldiers who barely survive a helicopter crash behind enemy lines, only to land in a far more dangerous situation the convoluted and toxic dramas of a refugee family forced to rely on poppy to survive. As the soldiers and the Afghans warily circle each other misunderstandings abound. The refugees have taken shelter under abandoned Soviet army tanks, which the soldiers mistake for a Taliban encampment. They open fire, setting the stage for anger and frustration. The Afghans fear the soldiers are after their opium crop, or, when one of the soldiers tries to make friends with a toddler, that the foreigners want to take their children. For Barmak, it's a thinly veiled criticism of how the U.S. has conducted its war in Afghanistan. There has been too much of a focus on the fight, he says, and not enough on development. "I wanted to show the conflict between ordinary Afghans and the foreign soldiers who don't know how to listen." Even if the message is heavy, his touch is light, a tactic to make the criticism easier to swallow. In one scene the soldiers fantasize about having multiple wives, while the refugee-clan patriarch, who has three, drowns his sorrows in opium smoke. Each wife has her own abandoned tank call it a postapocalyptic, polygamous, Afghan trailer park but the patriarch spends most of his nights banished outdoors. Every character is trapped in his or her own hell, says Barmak. "If only they could understand each other, maybe they could escape their fates."
Barmak seeks to show the human side of tragedy. In Osama, about a young girl in Taliban-era Kabul who poses as a boy in order to provide for her widowed mother, he highlights the plight of women under that draconian regime. His awareness of the human side of history was honed early on. At age 5 he was transfixed by a showing of Lawrence of Arabia at his hometown cinema hall in Kabul. He haunted movie theaters after that, taping together remnants of filmstrips to make his own films, which he would then show to his friends in tiny makeshift movie halls fashioned from cardboard. When the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, he joined the mujahedin guerrillas, eventually forming the documentary-film unit for rebel commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. (Massoud, also a film buff, introduced Barmak to Casablanca, Spartacus and Platoon.)
These days Barmak spends more time courting financiers than dodging rockets. Making movies in Afghanistan is expensive, and there is no local market to speak of. Instead he relies on foreign distribution Opium War will be screening in some 15 cities across Asia and Europe this spring, largely based on his success last fall at the Rome International Film Festival, where Opium War won the critics' award for best film. He hopes for more success and jokes about the remote possibility of failure. "If I can't make it as a director," he says, "at least I now know how to grow opium."