Sonia Nassery Cole endured death threats, a kidnapping and bomb blasts to film “Black Tulip” in Kabul, Afghanistan.
But she survived, as did the film, and with a recent screening at the Motion Picture Association of America headquarters here in Washington and a publicity tour surrounding its release, the film could help remind Americans mired in election fever that there is still a war going on across the world.
Cole's harrowing experience making the movie loosely mirrors the plot of the movie, which portrays an Afghan family struggling to survive under constant threat from the Taliban in a post-9/11 Afghanistan.
“Making this movie in the middle of an election in Afghanistan was hell on earth,” Cole said at a question-and-answer session after the MPAA screening. “I had guns pointed at my head so many times that I just started saying, ‘Shoot me or get out of my way.’”
When militants located the lead actress and cut off her feet, Cole said, she cast herself in the role. She plays a woman who honors her father’s memory by opening a cafe with her husband, Hadar, where they serve wine and host open-mic nights. After she refuses to close down the cafe, the Taliban begins kidnapping and assassinating her family members.
The film, which was released to limited theaters last week, was Afghanistan’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards. Its 2010 premiere in Kabul caused a stir among Afghans in the audience, who criticized it as an inaccurate depiction of Afghan society.
An Afghan woman in the audience at last week's screening asked Cole how she could show liberal customs no longer seen on Afghan streets — men and women mixing at a wedding, a man kissing a woman over her burqa and restaurant owners serving alcohol to Afghans. The director defended the cultural faux pas as “artistic license,” saying she wanted to portray Afghanistan as it was before the Taliban and could be again.
Latif Ahmadi, head of the Afghan Film Organization, questioned whether Cole’s lead actress, Zarifa Jahon, had her feet cut off by the Taliban.
“I think that’s just propaganda for the film,” he told the New York Times. The Times added “many others in the film industry here said they had never heard of that actress or such an episode.”
An Afghan expatriate who escaped from the country in 1979, Cole has fought for the Afghan people through her nonprofit, the Afghanistan World Foundation. After she arrived in the United States, she wrote to President Ronald Reagan, who helped her organize a fundraiser for Afghan refugees in the early '80s.
“I’m in love with my country,” Cole said. “The spirit of the Afghan people is incredible. Thirty years of war, and they never give up.”
The movie’s title comes from a variety of stories about black tulips in Afghan culture, Cole said. During the Soviet occupation, Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan called the helicopters that airlifted bodies out of the battlefield “black tulips.” According to a different myth, an Afghan boy fighting against the Soviets laid a black tulip on the chest of his fallen comrade. The boy’s family arrived to clean his body for burial and found the black tulip tattooed on his chest.
But Cole prefers to say the black tulip is a symbol of Afghan society.
“The black tulip grows in the Himalayas, in the Hindu Kush mountains, and the wind blows but it still stands straight between the rocks. To me, that’s the spirit of the Afghan people.”