Afghanistan's James Bond: suave killer who drives a Toyota Camry

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 24, 2009 

MCT

Qaseem Elmi, president of a young media production company in Kabul, wants Afghan viewers to see a bit of themselves in the Bond character who is sent to prevent terrorists from detonating a nuclear bomb in Kabul.

CHUCK LIDDY — Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT

KABUL, Afghanistan — The television set crackles with breaking news: Terrorists have smuggled a nuclear bomb into Kabul and are preparing to take out the Afghan capital.

There is panic and pandemonium. Facing imminent immolation, the nation's leaders turn to the only man who can save Kabul: Afghanistan's first modern day James Bond.

Hollywood may have plans to set part of the next James Bond film in Afghanistan, but Kabul already has its own 007.

His favored drink is thick Turkish coffee, not a vodka martini. He speeds across the movie screen in a Toyota Camry, not an Aston Martin. And Afghanistan's 007 has no on-screen love interest.

But "Nijat" — the Dari world for "savior" — kills with the same suave efficiency as Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Daniel Craig.

Afghanistan's 007 is the newest incarnation in the nation's scrappy, low-budget film industry still struggling to recover from years of Taliban repression. If all goes as planned, "Nijat" will debut next year as part of the fifth annual Kabul International Documentary and Short Film Festival.

"Afghanistan's film industry is coming out of the ashes," said Sonia Nassery Cole, an Afghan-American filmmaker currently in Kabul, where she is directing "Black Tulip," a motion picture about modern life in this volatile nation.

Afghanistan's movie industry was crippled by years under Taliban rules that barred films and shuttered cinemas.

Even though U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government in 2001, filmmakers in Afghanistan still face unenviable challenges.

The deadly blast from a suicide car bomber targeting the NATO headquarters in Kabul last month seriously damaged the nearby movie set for a biographic film about Rumi, the region's celebrated 13th century Sufi poet.

The ongoing Taliban insurgency makes it impossible to film in large parts of the country.

And the Afghanistan government, beset by corruption and nearly overwhelmed by Taliban fighters, offers little support for the country's underdeveloped film industry.

Last year, the Afghan government banned theaters from showing "The Kite Runner" because of concerns that the Hollywood movie's stark depiction of a Pashtun boy raping a Hazara boy would inflame ethnic tensions.

Filmmakers became so worried about the fallout that they delayed release of the film so they could spirit the four child stars out of Afghanistan.

"We are sandwiched between the Taliban and the government," said Latif Ahmadi, director of Afghanistan's state-run film commission, whose office windows were blown out by the October attack on the NATO headquarters across the road.

Ahmadi said he received about $50,000 from the Afghan government to make his film about Rumi. But he quickly ran out of cash and has shelved the film while he searches for more money.

Like the Rumi movie, Afghanistan's new James Bond film is decidedly low-budget.

The filmmakers used jury-rigged firecrackers and packets of red ink to simulate shootings.

Sympathetic diplomats have agreed to let the filmmakers transform their gated embassy into the headquarters of the fictional Afghanistan Secret Service.

And Afghanistan's 007 nearly crushed the movie screenwriter with his Camry when he confused the accelerator for the brake after a long day of filming.

But Nijat is something more than a short action film.

The film's star is Qaseem Elmi, a quiet, 26-year-old entrepreneur who runs a small media production company in Kabul.

As the son of a police officer who worked for the Moscow-installed government in the 1980s, Elmi fled to Pakistan with his family when the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989.

Elmi spent his first eight months as a refugee living in a tent and kissed the ground when he returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban rulers.

Elmi started a Kabul computer business, worked for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's senior economic adviser and produced Andy Warhol-style campaign posters for one of the two female candidates in the recent presidential election.

The Bond-inspired film evolved as a side-project while Elmi and his partners were waiting for the delayed arrival of fiberglass "dome homes" that they hope NATO will buy to replace chilly military tents.

Elmi doesn't want moviegoers to simply see Nijat as an action hero. He sees the Afghanistan Bond as a role model for his fractured country.

"I hope any kid or any soldier who watches this will think: 'Can I be like that?'" Elmi said while smoking one of Nijat's signature cigarettes. "'If I get a job that big, can I save my country?'"

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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