Afghan film body gets its first female boss

The focus of Sahraa Karimi’s work has mostly been Afghan women. (AN photo)
Updated 16 May 2019
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Afghan film body gets its first female boss

  • Sahraa Karimi was only woman to apply for top job

KABUL: Sahraa Karimi made headlines with her critically acclaimed documentary “Women Behind the Wheel.” She is back in the driving seat — as the first female boss of a state-run film body that has been led by men since its establishment in 1968.

Karimi, 36, was the only woman to apply for the director-general role at Afghan Film and was competing against four men. She said she wanted to rebuild cinemas in Kabul and nurture local filmmaking.

“We need to make films inside Afghanistan, we need to tell our own stories. Many from outside came and still come to Afghanistan and make (films) about our stories,” she told Arab News. “But Afghan filmmakers do not have the facilities to make films about our own country, so it is my first priority.”

She grew up in Iran and migrated to Slovakia, where she spent more than a decade studying film. The focus of her work has mostly been Afghan women, who have enjoyed greater freedoms and opportunities since the Taliban was ousted in 2001.

Her appointment was welcomed by Afghans from the film and media industries.

“I think it is a great woman who is going to lead Afghan Film. I hope she can protect and support actresses from the terrible culture of disrespect they face,” Fereshta Kazemi, an Afghan actress who has also worked as an anti-corruption adviser, told Arab News.

Journalist Mujahid Andarabi described her as “sunrise in the darkness of night” in a misogynistic society.

Jawan Sher Haidari, who has been involved in the Afghan cinema industry for decades, called Karimi an “active and prominent figure.”

“We do not have proper equipment, even cameras,” he told Arab News. “Once we asked the government for $150,000 for three short films. The answer from the then finance minister was: ‘We do not have the budget for fancy things.’ She (Karimi) will need to start from zero. What government leaders do in terms of culture and the appointment of women are just symbolic moves. They have not done anything fundamentally for the promotion of culture and cinema,” he added.

There is no specific funding for Afghan Film. There is not even a home for it anymore as its offices were allocated to the UK for it to use as part of a new embassy. Items from Afghan Film’s archive that survived Taliban rule — and the plunder before that — are in the presidential palace.

The crumbling state of Afghan Film has even been dubbed “Nothing Wood” by local journalist Tahir Qadery.

Karimi knows about the hurdles but did not know that Afghan Film’s offices had been handed over to the British. She said she hoped to raise money through advocacy. She is even unphased by the Taliban, which has yet to retreat from the public sphere.

“I am not anti-peace. I am pro-peace, because we are tired of this war, but I am not afraid of the Taliban. I belong to a generation of women that fights for every achievement. If they (the Taliban) want peace, we welcome them,” Karimi replied when asked to comment about peace talks between the US and the militant group.

Nabi Tanhar, a veteran director at Afghan Film, outlined some of the other challenges facing Karimi. “The political and security situation has overshadowed all of the cultural affairs, including cinema in Afghanistan,” he told Arab News. “It takes one week to order clothes for an actor. There is too much bureaucracy. The entire country is a challenge and she will face tough times because our films are not digitized. We do not have a building for Afghan Film and no budget.”

He suggested that Karimi could use her network outside Afghanistan to create interest in the local movie industry, advising her to “exercise patience” when she formally took up her role.

An official at the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture said the Afghan Film building had been taken over by the British because it was next door to the US embassy and opposite NATO headquarters in Kabul’s most secure site.


Britain wakes up to student mental health plight

Updated 11 min 55 sec ago
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Britain wakes up to student mental health plight

  • One in five reported suffering from mental health issues, mostly depression and anxiety, according to the survey conducted at 140 British universities
  • The proportion of British students reporting mental disorders has ‘significantly increased’ over the last decade
LONDON: Former business student Greg used to resort to drink and drugs to get to sleep — a common story at British universities struggling to adapt to growing concerns about student mental health problems.
“I was super, super depressed,” Greg, now aged 26, told AFP.
Around half of the 37,500 students interviewed by The Insight Network, a therapy provider, used drugs and alcohol “as a means of coping with difficulties in their lives.”
One in five reported suffering from mental health issues, mostly depression and anxiety, according to the survey conducted at 140 British universities.
In Greg’s case, it was a combination of factors at play, including the disappointment of not liking his course and coping with having more time on his hands.
The end of a five-year relationship, on top of the death of his grandparents, however, made things even worse, he said, asking not to be identified by his full name.
Dominique Thompson, a doctor who has treated students for 20 years, said their anxiety could be debilitating and was “not about feeling a bit stressed about exams.”
“They would not be able to go out with friends, to go to their lectures, to study, to read... they stop socializing, leaving their room,” she said.
And students with depression sometimes develop “suicidal thinking,” she warned.
Over the last decade, the proportion of British students reporting mental disorders has “significantly increased,” according to a study.
From 0.4 percent in 2008, the figure rose to 3.1 percent last year, the study of nearly 2.3 million students published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicated.
However, “we do not know how much of this increase is due to increased awareness of mental health conditions, the willingness of students to report such conditions, or a genuine increase in the prevalence of mental health conditions,” the agency said in written comments to AFP.
Jolted into action, the government announced in March the creation of a new working group “to support students to deal with the challenges” of starting in higher education.
“Our universities are world leading in so many areas and I want them to be the best for mental health support too,” Education Secretary Damian Hinds said at the time.
Students often impose “extremely high, often unrealistic, expectations” on themselves and have difficulty coping with failure, said Andrew Hill, director of a wellbeing research group at York St. John University.
There is also anxiety associated with “seeing mistakes in your work, or that others will spot mistakes you have made,” he told AFP.
Social media, with its visibility and reach, has also contributed to the pressure on young people, said Thompson.
“Cake baking is now a competition, putting on makeup is a competition, sewing, painting, sculpture...
“You name almost anything that could have been fun and relaxing, it’s now become a competition,” she said.
“They’re ... 24/7 under the microscope because of their social media.”
The doctor also said that the rise in student mental disorders was an international phenomenon.
She said students also battled the feeling that it was “no longer enough” to have a university degree because they were now so common.
Another factor can be “helicopter parents,” who micro-manage their children’s busy activity-packed routines while they are still at school, leaving them at a loss once they have to manage on their own, she said.
The experts say that universities need to implement new strategies to help struggling students.
Non-competitive activities just “for fun” should be introduced, as well as teaching students how to deal with failure, said Thompson.
For his part, Hill urged tutors to receive “basic mental literacy training” to “recognize the signs and symptoms” of potential disorders.
Greg remembers asking for help when he was a 20-year-old student at a top London university in 2013, but said that the process took “so long” he gave up.
“They recommended books, numbers to call and asked if I wanted a chat,” he recalled.
“They eventually get back to me between eight and 10 weeks after I contacted them. It was very frustrating.”
Some universities have recently taken up new approaches.
“Like many universities, we tended to focus on the point when they needed additional support,” said Mark Ames, head of student services at the University of Bristol.
Shocked by the suicides of nine of its students since 2016, the institution set up two services, made up of around 60 staff, who “focus on supporting students’ wellbeing,” such as encouraging them to get more sleep.
It is also reviewing how often it tests students and its examinations schedules to “make sure they don’t all bunch at the same time.”
However, it was recently in the headlines after the parents of one of the nine — Natasha Abrahart, 20, a physics student who was found hanged last year — accused the university of failing to do enough.
Birmingham University meanwhile told AFP that it was “actively working” on developing a “single strategic framework,” to replace its case-by-case approach.
Greg said that the approach to mental health at many universities had changed radically since his own experience.
After a five-year “break,” he has returned to university to study geology.