In a region where it is much easier for people to cry, a young Afghan actor passes social messages to the people of Afghanistan using laughter. Amongst the bombs, threats and disasters, Karim Asir becomes the «Afghan Charlie Chaplin», who uses the iconic comedy actor’s persona to perform comic «gags» and pantomime while educating his compatriots on important social issues. That is until Karim was forced to leave his home following the Taliban’s retaking of Afghanistan on 15 August 2021.
In Anneta Papathanassiou’s forthcoming Laughing in Afghanistan, the issue of laughter in the country and beyond is explored through Karim’s journey and art. As laughter has often been considered threatening Laughing in Afghanistan seeks to understand the power of laughter in the world, asking: if there was more laughter in the world, would we be more tolerant of each other? Could laughter help us heal our own traumas?
In our first in a series of profiles for upcoming documentary films, Modern Times Review spoke with Anneta Papathanassiou about the making of the film, the threatening nature of comedy, her initial introduction to Karim, and more.
What is your personal relationship with the importance of humour and laughter?
I am a woman, actress and director. I am an optimistic and cheerful person interested in maintaining a humorous, positive mentality even in the most challenging circumstances. This is what I have always tried to achieve in my films. I wanted to make a documentary film about Afghanistan which would be different from previous ones: with humour and cheerfulness but also with an educational value.
One cannot suffer endlessly; we need laughter. I guess this is an element of my personality. I believe that laughter has a way of connecting people and is one of the most basic and fundamental paths through which we communicate as human beings. Laughter can bring positive changes to all aspects of our lives. This is why I wanted to do a film about the Afghan comedian Karim Asir, who, amid bombs, threats and disasters, gives performances with humour and laughter as his only weapon. Personally, I think that humour is essential in all aspects of human life.
I have been to Afghanistan twice before, doing documentaries. Once, in 2007, when we were filming the documentary Qadir, an Afghan Ulysses, the local police arrested and interrogated us for a whole day. It was a dangerous situation because the police thought that we were spies! We had to find a way to get out of it and change their minds. We told them that the light is diminishing as sunset approaches and how it creates such a nice ambience in the police office, and we tried to persuade them to film the whole situation! My crew and my translator were terrified, but then, suddenly, I started laughing! And you know what happened? They said yes and permitted us to film. This was in 2007. After that, I returned to Afghanistan in 2012 to film my other documentary, Playing with Fire, about Afghan actresses.
I was teaching theatre at Kabul University. I selected two plays – one of them was the ancient tragedy Antigone by Sophocles. The other one was the ancient comedy The Birds, by Aristophanes. I found out that the students wanted to be involved mostly in comedy, although they had so many problems and weren’t exactly leading easy lives. For them, laughing, taking part and acting in comic scenes was a huge relief. I found this very interesting. People living in developing countries have many problems, but they still have safeguarded this kind of relief. I believe this attracted me to the character of Karim Asir, the protagonist of my new documentary. He smiles and narrates all his misfortunes in a funny way.
I have known him since his first year in university, where he studied acting. He was my student, and I could tell from the start that he was a comedian. After some years, I found out that he had become very famous in Afghanistan and abroad, known as the Afghan Charlie Chaplin. I found this truly interesting, indeed. He filmed short, black-and-white slapstick videos and had millions of viewers. Amazing! And many-many people went to watch his performances live, in Afghanistan, in the midst of bombs and disasters. So, I decided to do a documentary about «Laughing in Afghanistan», – which is the title of my new film.
People living in developing countries have many problems, but they still have safeguarded this kind of relief.
What were those initial conversations with Karim about this idea to make him the subject of a documentary?
Three years ago, we started talking about doing a documentary about art and laughter in Afghanistan, but the pandemic put our plans on ice for some time. The idea for both of us was to reveal to the international audience that Afghanistan is not all about bombs and terrorists; it also has culture, humour, and art. Afghan artists do exist! Most people ignore this because they know only what they watch on the news. We were discussing Karim’s live performances as an Afghan Charlie Chaplin and how dangerous performing in the open air was because the possibility of a suicide bombing was a constant threat. But the people of Afghanistan wanted to forget about their problems, the danger, and poverty; they wanted to come and watch the performance. They needed to laugh!
We discussed whether laughing is prohibited or not. We also talked about why Karim kept being targeted with death threats when all he was doing was a comedy about the environment or bureaucracy. Karim wanted to change things, using laughter as a weapon. But for how long could he go on doing this? How far could he go? Some people say that laughing out loud is not allowed. So I started thinking about this, searching for answers. Why was it wrong to laugh? On his part, Karim wanted to show the world that art exists in Afghanistan and that a comedian has the power to change things.
Why do you think comedy threatens those in authority so much?
Many times, comedy criticizes current affairs. That is why the authorities, those who hold positions of power, are afraid of humour and, as a result, of laughter. Authority-holders who feel threatened by humour and contrive to suppress it are simply being sensitive to whatever puts their power at stake. But Karim didn’t criticize political affairs. He didn’t make fun of the Taliban or the government or criticize their attitudes or actions. He was talking about common issues, themes that everybody could accept. It is, therefore, very compelling to understand why they were threatening him, that is, why they could not accept laughter. That’s what triggered me to investigate these questions further. Why laughter? A possible explanation, I believe, could be that people who do this do not want people to be happy. After the Taliban took over, Karim did new black-and-white videos. He used his comic way to portray the current situation in Afghanistan. This was more of a political statement, this way of expressing himself.
Authority-holders who feel threatened by humour and contrive to suppress it are simply being sensitive to whatever puts their power at stake.
How did you envision the original narrative construction of the film versus how it evolved over time?
I was full of joy that I was going to make a film about laughter in Afghanistan with my former student, who is now a well-known actor and comedian, as the hero. I wanted to film his performances and do my research on laughter and art in Afghanistan. Of course, the recent events, when the Taliban invaded Afghanistan on the 15th of August last year, halted our plans.
We didn’t believe that this would happen so fast. It was unexpected for everyone involved. It became practically impossible to do a film about laughing in Afghanistan and follow our written treatment. But I told myself we must do the film at all costs. This is what a documentary must do. It must keep up with the circumstances. Karim received a death letter from the Taliban, and they even captured him. The essential thing for us at that point was to save him. We began his rescue operation and tried to accomplish our goal from Greece. It was really a very long, dangerous, and agonizing operation that lasted 75 whole days. I decided to include all of this in the film. I started recording our conversations with Karim and the day-by-day developments in Afghanistan. Even in the worst moments, Karim had a smile on his face and never gave up on hope; he would always describe his situation in a funny way. After he was rescued, he started doing humorous videos and performances once more, describing the situation in his country and performing for Afghan refugees as the Afghan Charlie Chaplin. The theme of laughter is discussed in the film in relation to religions and people, even from the aspect of the official Taliban government.
Did you produce or shoot any of the black-and-white footage?
Yes, we produced and shot new black-and-white videos for the film in which Karim, as an Afghan Charlie Chaplin, narrates his own personal story and describes the recent situation in Afghanistan in a humorous way. All this is pantomime in slapstick style, B&W style.
One of the interviews in the film is with the official government from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. How did you get that interview?
I was trying to get access to this for a long time. And I am happy that we succeeded in doing this interview. I am a western female director and actress, and I have my own opinion about art, but I was interested to know what a high-ranking Taliban official respectively thinks about art and laughter, to understand why music is banned, what future art has in Afghanistan today or how a comedian can exist there, nowadays. I wanted to know what he thinks about laughter. In other words, we struggled to do this interview because it was important for the film also to capture this point of view.
Can you just speak on the process from Greece to Afghanistan during those days? Was the process as easy as getting a visa and going there, or were there other aspects that you had to consider before travelling there, even during pre-Taliban days?
It is true that Afghanistan never was the safest place, especially for a foreign woman director who wants to do a documentary. Of course, you need to get a visa and get permission to film, which is not so easy in the first place. When I wanted to go there with my crew for the first time in 2007, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs stopped us two days before our departure from Greece. At that time, it was too dangerous to go because of kidnappings and suicide bombings. For me, pausing the project was a disaster because we had arranged everything and our suitcases where ready and full for the travel. Things like that happen all the time; at the end of the day, however, three months later, we found a way to persuade the Greek authorities that the area was safe enough for us to go there.
There are many aspects one needs to consider when going there in order to protect oneself. It is better not to share your intended itinerary with many people; it is preferable to travel secretly and, of course, respect the culture and ethics of the country.
When preparing for your first travels in 2007, what about Afghanistan interested you personally? What was the dynamic that drew you to the country?
I particularly enjoy travelling to unknown places and, in general, not easy to reach, especially for a woman. I am not interested in going to a place just for tourism. When travelling, I enjoy meeting people, having long discussions with them, and even living with them, so I can learn about their culture and life more intimately. When I started working on my first documentary, little did I know about Afghanistan; it all started from a tiny idea that came to me: to go there and make a film about a man trying to find his parents. From then on, I started searching, reading, and learning about Afghanistan. The country is really fascinating and has a rugged beauty. The people are so kind and welcoming that it was hard for me to believe that, at the same time, such an outburst of violence is possible in that same country. I found out that the mothers there are exactly like our mothers and that love has the same meaning as it does in my country. Many young people are interested in studying and living and having fan. So, I couldn’t understand why these people had to suffer, why so many differences existed, and why certain people wished to deprive life of happiness. I wanted to learn more about all this. To investigate. Afghanistan was a different world for me, and when I started my research through filming, I became friends with many people there. This motivated me to go back there, again and again, to find out more about this world.
Laughing in Afghanistan produced by TopCut-Modiano, coproduced by ERT, Aljazeera Documentary Channel, OhMyDog, Orizontas, with the support of Greek Film Center