In the spotlight:

Shahrokh Bikaran &

Ilyas Yourish

"We feel part of a new generation of Afghans making films which have a unique perspective"

Film still: Kamay, dir. Shahrokh Bikaran & Ilyas Yourish

Metaphors for a people:

In conversation with Kamay filmmakers Shahrokh Bikaran and Ilyas Yourish

Afghan filmmakers Shahrokh Bikaran and Ilyas Yourish are currently working on their debut feature film, but in reality, they’ve been part of a close-knit community that has shaped the last decade of cinema coming out of Kabul. “We worked on many films during the past ten years, either as crew members or just for the sake of cinema,” Shahrokh says. “Filmmakers from around the world would come to Kabul—even some Afghan filmmakers who had fled earlier—and they would face a country that they only knew from memories or the mainstream media. But living, surviving, and working in the country is a skill that only the locals have, so we always supported these filmmakers with our knowledge.”

That spirit of communal filmmaking and artistic support landed them gigs as well, including as crew members on Aboozar Amini’s award-winning Kabul, City in the Wind. “Shahrokh made a living with sound design and recording, as well as score composing, so he’s been involved in more than ten documentaries. I was mostly working on the research side and managing the production aspects. But at the same time, we were also developing our own projects. So that’s the cultural environment that we grew up in,” Ilyas explains.

For them, the cinema they make can’t be separated from that cultural environment, or more importantly, from their identity.

“What really made me a filmmaker is the living experience of being part of the Hazaras in Afghanistan,” Shahrokh says. “We come from a persecuted background, so what made us filmmakers was not any university or big opportunities, but the struggle to tell our own stories.”

Kamay, their current documentary project, is a prime example. “On November 19, 2017, a Hazaran girl committed suicide in Kabul University. We had two choices: to follow this story or not,” Ilyas says. The filmmakers soon opted to meet with the girl’s family and observe their rural life turn upside down.

“It was before the collapse, during a bloody war full of suicide bombings and civilians being targeted—especially Hazaras because of their ethnic and religious identity. And under one of the most corrupt government and judicial systems in the world, here comes a Hazara family who practiced their basic rights and went out with a quest for justice.” Coming from the Hazara people, making the film is a question of social responsibility, Shahrokh and Ilyas say, adding that their generation was one of the first to be educated. “The story is not only the family’s story. It’s Shahrokh’s story, it’s my story, it’s the story of this whole community for generations,” Ilyas explains. “This family is practicing their rights, getting educated, and fighting for their basic livelihood in the mountains—all these elements are a metaphor for the community, and even for the people of Afghanistan. That’s why we chose to follow the story, and we believe it’s a very important story to tell.”

Filmmakers Ilyas Yourish and Shahrokh Bikaran (middle screen) pitching their project Kamay at IDFA Forum 2020

Critically, Shahrokh and Ilyas’ artistic method—the way they’re telling the story—is just as important as the story itself. As creative documentary filmmakers, their modus operandi has emerged in stark contrast to the images most often seen of Afghanistan. “The mainstream media have always focused on big stories and bold headlines. They never really got close to the people, to hear and understand them,” Shahrokh says. “It’s always about the war, politics, terrorism, and explosions. People are turned into mere numbers. The bigger the number, the bigger the impact, and the bigger the headline. It came to a point where a hundred people would be killed, but it still wouldn’t make the headline because it’s not enough. This helicopter view dehumanized the people of Afghanistan. “We think that by reflecting on the inner world of the characters, and by telling the story of very ordinary people and moments, we may create more understanding and empathy for Afghan people. There are a lot of things to be discovered within the details that aren’t important for mainstream media.”

At the moment, Shahrokh and Ilyas are busy working on their rough cut—Ilyas from Brussels, Shahrokh from a refugee center, where they’re currently housed after fleeing Afghanistan last year. Looking ahead, they’re hopeful for the same level of support that they previously showed their colleagues in the documentary industry. And with awards such as Best Asian Project at DMZ Industry and The Whickers Film and TV Funding Award at Sheffield DocFest under their belt, not to mention support from the Sundance Documentary Fund and Berlinale World Cinema Fund, the industry may be starting to heed their call. “We feel part of a new generation of Afghans making films which have a unique perspective. They narrate the stories that you may have never heard—even the Afghans themselves have never heard,” Shahrokh says. “We expect the institutions and foundations who invest in documentaries to respect the perspective we bring. We are trying a new approach to cinema which should be supported.”

By Julia Yudelman

Film still: Kamay, dir. Shahrokh Bikaran & Ilyas Yourish