‘Death, Dictates Silence’: An Afghan Refugee Portrays Exile in Film Screened at Haugesund
Javid Sina, an Afghan refugee based in Sweden, has had a life punctuated by borders. First in Iran, where he spent his childhood, and where as an Afghan he was abused, unable to go to school, and forced to educate himself through the books his family kept at home, from Dostoyevsky to Rumi. Then migrating to Sweden, which he did by foot when he was 15 years old, around ten years ago, after being passed around by a series of exploitative smugglers.
And even today, now that he just finished film school in Göteburg, he saw his ambitions restricted by borders again as he tried to make it to Haugesund for the Norwegian Intl. Film Festival-Haugesund. This time though, his path wasn’t blocked due to his foreign nationality, but because of COVID-19 restrictions. Norway currently welcomes visitors from across Europe who are fully vaccinated and have received their second dose more than 7 days before traveling, but Sina had only received his 4 days earlier.
He was crushed, and reminded of similar past situations. “As soon as they stopped me, this fear of being stopped at a border by a police officer came back, it’s like re-noticing this trauma,” he told Variety.
For many displaced people, trauma is a feeling they carry with them, that makes it difficult to share or to look back. But as a filmmaker and writer, Sina strives to use art to channel this trauma and portray his exile from his family and his homeland, Afghanistan.
In Haugesund, he had a new short film screened as part of theNext Nordic Generation, a section dedicated to 10 of the best recent graduation films from film schools across the Nordic region.
His title, called “Death, Dictates Silence” tells the story of two Afghan refugee siblings separated from childhood, who are dealt an extra blow and cultural clash (the brother lives in Sweden and the sister in Iran) when their mother passes away and the brother is unable to attend the funeral due to the pandemic.
COVID-19 inspires both the short’s style and narrative. The whole film is a Zoom conversation between the two siblings, and this separation plays out stylistically as the aspect ratio changes from vertical to horizontal during the film – shifting the call from a phone to a computer.
The short stars Hafiz Hossaini and Arezoo Ariapoor (who played in the Angelina Jolie-supported film “Hava, Maryam, Ayesha” at the 2019 Venice Film Festival), both Afghan refugees based in the Nordic region who personally connected with the script written by Sina.
“She had the same problem [as the character],” the filmmaker said about Ariapoor. “Her mom was sick in Iran, and she had to take care of her for a very long time. It’s a very personal story for her, like a kind of personal story for all of us three, because Hafiz had the same problem as I had. He was here [in Sweden] when his mom died in Pakistan, and he couldn’t travel back.”
Since the conversation in the film is based on the perspective of the brother in Sweden, the film is inevitably inspired from the director’s own experience. Displacement takes a whole more meaningful and difficult aspect in the age of constant Zoom calls, as the refugee portrayed in a western country can easily connect through Zoom calls or send photos and videos, but can’t physically be with his family.
“There’s a big part of me in this film,” Sina said, who lost his two parents. His father died during the Taliban rule pre-2001, and his mother four years ago, though the memory remains very fresh to the filmmaker, who teared up while talking about her.
One of the main traumatic feelings that stays with Sina, which he portrayed through the brother in the film – and which he said many refugees now living in safe countries feel – is guilt.
“I think the major problem is – you can see this in my film – is this guilt that I couldn’t bring my family. It has always just stayed with me, because I really tried my best,” he said, pausing for a few seconds, “but things didn’t go as I wanted.”
The short film’s title is taken from a line Sina wrote and used at the start of the film: “To those who have stayed, to those who have left, death dictates silence,” referring to the inability to conjure up anything but silence when a loved one dies, or when a refugee reflects on their homeland.
“If you stay right now in Afghanistan, you will be killed or tortured. If you leave, you cannot do anything, you cannot change anything in the country. You bring a lot of guilt with you. Both sides of this situation are like a saw in your stomach,” Sina said.
“That’s why I thought to dedicate this film to those people who stay, who feel all this pain, like the sister, and to those who left, left with guilt and shame, like the brother.”
As the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan escalates since the Taliban takeover, Sina, who has younger siblings in Kabul who are now trying to leave, hopes that people around the world, especially in the film industry, keep talking about Afghanistan to put pressure on politicians and incite change.
“I think every one of us in the film industry has this role right now, if they raise their voice, if they just mention the situation in Afghanistan right now, it can change a lot of things,” he said. “We can save lives. We can stop a history of catastrophe from repeating itself.”
Though many refugees and migrants who now live in safe and comfortable situations carry the guilt Sina evoked, campaigning for change and raising awareness are ways to battle through, whether it be in activism, film, or the meeting of the two.
“I can’t hide it,” the filmmaker said about how he poured himself into the film. “It is what it is. Some people’s lives are a bit tragic. War happened,” and then, pointing at himself, he said, “this is the product of war.”
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