Over the past 20 years, America and its allies in Afghanistan helped finance and train a new generation of Afghan film and TV professionals. Last summer, amid the rapid and chaotic U.S. military withdrawal, they abandoned them to the Taliban. Since then, a small group of volunteers — including former soldiers, ex-embassy staff, and at least one middle-aged folk-rocker — have been trying to get them out.
The group of Afghan actors, directors, producers, sound engineers and makeup artists worked on series like Eagle Four, an Afghan police thriller modeled on 24, or the American Idol-style singing competition Afghan Star — all shows that got backing from the U.S. Embassy and foreign development agency USAID.
“It was a hearts-and-minds mission. The shows we did focused on promoting women’s rights, on showing how government, a police force, a legal system should work in a democracy,” says Muffy Potter, an Australia-based producer who spent years training and working alongside Afghan TV crews, including on Eagle Four. “We had men and women working side-by-side together as equals. That was something new for the country.”
Things changed, dramatically, when the Taliban seized control of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021.
After several days of chaos and violence — including a suicide bombing attack Aug. 26 outside Kabul International Airport that killed 170 Afghan civilians and 13 members of the U.S. military — America pulled out, ending its 20-year mission in the country. The new, militant-led government moved quickly to crack down on rights and freedoms, sending women home from work and barring hundreds of thousands of girls from going back to school. In late November, the Taliban issued decrees banning women from appearing in TV dramas, requiring all female journalists to wear headscarves onscreen and banning any show deemed to go against the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Sharia law.
Shortly after the U.S. withdrawal, international producers who had worked on the Allies’ “hearts-and-minds” project in Afghanistan banded together to try and help their colleagues in the country. They collaborate with volunteer organizations such as Afghan Innovation and Project Exodus to secure exit visas and transport for Afghan artists and raise money for food and humanitarian aid.
“Our crews and colleagues started getting visits from the Taliban, a lot of the actors on our shows have gone into hiding,” says Potter. “They fear for their lives.”
“I was a television producer for 10 years, working with the Americans. I loved my job: they gave us opportunities, they gave us hope,” says Farjaad (who asked that The Hollywood Reporter use an alias). “Now there is nothing. TV is locked down, women aren’t allowed to work. I don’t know if the Taliban will find me, torture me, kill me.”
A prominent Afghan actor, speaking to THR on condition of anonymity because he fears reprisals by the Taliban, said he moved out of Kabul to protect himself and his family. “I’m afraid any time I go out on the streets in case someone recognizes me.”
“We’ve gotten almost no help from the U.S. government or at least the State Department,” adds Julie Brown-Fardoe, who worked with U.S.-backed Afghan production company Tolo TV and who estimates there are around 300 Afghan film and TV artists and their families under threat because they worked directly with the U.S. and their allies. “It’s incredibly important that the global film and television community rally to support these Afghan film and TV makers. They are your colleagues. We are responsible for them,” she says. “With the arrival of winter, people are on the brink of mass starvation. We’re talking about a humanitarian crisis, here.”
The images of the start of that humanitarian crisis, broadcast out of Kabul last summer, inspired Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter John Ondrasik, aka Five for Fighting, to write “Blood on My Hands,” a lyrical condemnation of how President Joe Biden’s administration handled the U.S. withdrawal.
The video of the song has become a viral hit online, with more than half a million views on YouTube.
“Then I started getting hundreds of emails from veterans, particularly Afghan veterans,” Ondrasik tells THR. “People began emailing me to help them get people, SIV (Special International Visa) holders, out of Afghanistan.” In what he calls “a surreal situation,” the 57-year-old folk rocker began to work as a go-between with the likes of Potter and Brown-Fardoe and U.S. lawmakers, trying to get Afghan artists out of the country.
The L.A.-based Ondrasik says he’s been “frustrated” by the lack of response from the entertainment industry to the suffering of fellow artists.
“Hollywood likes to stand on its soapbox and talk about freedom and compassion, women’s rights and human rights, but where are the people standing up for their fellow actors [in Afghanistan]?” he says. “I think a lot of folks in Hollywood actually don’t know what’s going on. [We need] to speak with a loud voice to say we’re not going to accept this.”
Part of the problem, he argues, is that the U.S. withdrawal, and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, has been politicized, associated with a right-wing, anti-Biden agenda. Ondrasik notes he has been interviewed multiple times on Fox News but rarely gets a call from CNN or MSNBC.
“If Donald Trump or a Republican were president, we probably have a counter on CNN showing how many people are still trapped in Afghanistan,” says Ondrasik. “I think it’s very sad that we live in this tribal era. Because if Trump were still president and this happened under his watch, my song would remain the same, only the names would change.”
Media attention and public pressure can yield results. Several filmmakers, including Sahraa Karimi, the former head of national cinema body Afghan Film, were able to emigrate to Europe thanks to intervention from the Slovakian, Turkish and Ukrainian governments. In December, following reports about the plight of students and staff members of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, including its all-female Zohra Orchestra, the Portuguese government granted asylum to 273 students, artists and their family members, who arrived in Lisbon on Dec. 13.
Brown-Fardoe points to “one happy ending” among her Afghan colleges at Tolo TV: Eagle Four director Ghafar Azad, who had successfully applied for asylum in France in 2018, was able to reunite with his wife and family, who escaped Kabul just days after the Taliban seized power.
But hundreds of others remain.
“I don’t know politics,” says Afghan producer Farjaad, speaking via an encrypted app from his home in Kabul. “But we helped America build Afghanistan. We are allies. Now is the time for you to help us.”
For more information or to donate to efforts to evacuate film and television professionals out of Afghanistan, go to Afghaninnovation.com.