Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Film and Stage: An Update from Michael in Kabul

Another greeting from Afghanistan where the beer is cold and the nightlife wild. Hold it, wait... that was Belgium at the stilt festival. Funny how I confuse the two. We've been here in Afghanistan just over two weeks-- a week of the National Theatre Festival and a week training the actors (and actresses) of White Star Company. It's productive, and actually fun, though there's no beer and our nightlife is pretty much spent having dinner, downloading the day's video, writing emails, and planning the next day's events.

In the last couple of days the French Cultural Institute (among others) sponsored the first Human Rights Film Festival here in Kabul, with many entries from Afghanistan (and others from around the world). We caught a couple of films from Afghanistan, and I have certainly seen many over the years, and something occurred to me in comparing the level of Afghan film acting vs. stage acting.

Generally the film acting was pretty good -- better than most of what we saw at the recent theatre festival. To be clear, there was some real talent among the stage actors, both "old" (those who studied under the Soviets) and young. The "Best Actor" and "Best Actress" were in their early 20's and definitely the best, but there was a pretty big gap between these few and the others. I was trying to figure out why (aside, that is, from 30 years of horrible civil war and a shaky reconstruction). Here's a conjecture:

For most actors here, film and TV is the only role model, since actual theatrical performances are few and far between. (There was one complaint from a prominent western NGO sponsor of the Kabul University Fine Arts Department that the Theatre Department rarely stages student productions.) In film and TV (prepare for a sweeping generalization on my part) a lot of the work of an actor is taken care of by the location. Film an actor walking down a bleak alley in the dead of winter, and he doesn't have to act cold - he IS cold. Want an actor to look crazy? Have him slowly twirl around holding an apple standing in the middle of Kabul city traffic -- that really IS crazy. But on stage where you don't have the cold or the cars, the actor has to work that much harder to convey not just emotion but location. It's a whole different set of chops and techniques between stage and screen.

Similarly, an actor can spend an entire film at ground level, which could be monotonous; but different camera angles provide the welcome variety: filming from above, below, long-shot, close-up, etc. In the theatre, there's no camera to move, and you can't move the audience. You can move the actors... put one on a ladder, another under a table, but that assumes you have a budget to buy a ladder or a table for your production. Yes, the economy is that bleak for most of the artists here. But in my career I've seen some pretty amazing staging for little or no money. It usually requires a very creative theatre director, which may be another issue here.

Many of the Afghan directors, even of the theatre companies, are working in film and TV (and by film, we are really talking about digital video). They can certainly set up creative shots in a camera frame, but not necessarily a proscenium arch (for non-theatre types, that's the "frame" around the front of the stage). In my humble, subjective opinion, the best directed shows at the Theatre Festival were (in this order): a production from Tajikistan, a production of The Little Prince by an Afghan group with an Iranian director, and an actor/puppet production co-directed by a German puppeteer. Actually, the latter two productions were by the same group of Afghan actor/puppeteers whom we've been watching in the last couple of years. If the rest of the country improved at the same rate as this ensemble, Afghanistan would be a lot further along.

I also must mention an very impressive solo-woman's performance by a young Afghan actress that opened the festival. It was a pretty bold, funny, character driven piece (almost clown theatre) that I, and the audience, was NOT expecting. I shall venture to elaborate more on that in the future.

Gotta plan tomorrow's rehearsal. Watch this space.

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