In This Film About Afghan Life, the Woman Slaps Back


“We have always had an oppressor, and an oppressed, but we have had little discussion of the environment in which the accused lives in,” Ms. Sadat said.

By the accused, she means her protagonist — Suraya, the senior police detective, who ends up accidentally killing her husband while defending herself from another violent outburst. The letter to the president of the movie’s title is hers; she is writing from prison, where she has landed on death row.

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A staff meeting of Ms. Sadat’s film company.

Credit
Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Suraya’s once-happy marriage grew sour when the demands of her work in a conservative society started raising her husband’s suspicions at home. Her father-in-law, whose shady business partners feel the pressure of Suraya’s investigations, kept appealing to his son’s honor to restrict her movements and keep her at home.

From the time she conceived the story in 2010, it took Ms. Sadat about seven hard years to complete the film. More frustrating were the bureaucratic hurdles after the movie was done, as she tried to meet simple criteria for Oscar selection.

Organizing screenings at commercial cinemas was a difficult task because there are just a couple of government cinemas, and they usually show only old Indian movies. If a director wants to screen her own film, she has to rent the cinema and then go through a lengthy process of her film’s content being checked.

Officials at the country’s highest cinematic institution, the Afghan Film commission, also dragged their feet in signing a letter she needed as part of her submission, Ms. Sadat said.

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Actors in Ms. Sadat’s new drama taking a break on set. Her son can be seen in the background.

Credit
Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

She began making movies as a high school student in the western city of Herat. “Three Dots,” her first film, about a young woman forced to smuggle drugs, was made more than a decade ago with simple gear in a secluded village that now is under Taliban control. But even back in the early 2000s it felt like the Wild West, she said.

One night during the weeklong shoot, Ms. Sadat said, the women in one of the village houses started cheering and celebrating. When she asked what the occasion was, they said their husbands, who lived as bandits, had captured another vehicle passing through.

“Three Dots” caught the eye of Afghanistan’s largest media conglomerate, Moby Group. Moby invited her to direct two television dramas. She directed 50 episodes of one, and three seasons of another.

During one of those projects she met her husband, Aziz Dildar, a young university lecturer in theater who was quickly rushed in as a replacement when one of the main actors, much to Ms. Sadat’s frustration, had shown up with a shaved head.

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Ms. Sadat and her two children at home in Kabul. Balancing the obligations of family and professional life is one of the themes of “A Letter to the President.”

Credit
Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

They became an artistic power couple, complementing and supporting each other. The offices of their company, Roya Film House, are below their apartment, in the basement.

Ms. Sadat says she feels lucky to be married to an artist who is as passionate about film as she is. Mr. Dildar writes the screenplays for their projects, and when she gets into the intense shooting period, he steps in to help. During the 40 days of shooting “A Letter to the President,” Ms. Sadat’s youngest child was barely a year old. Mr. Dildar would oversee the work on the set while she would disappear for brief periods to feed their child.

“If it had been someone other than Aziz, I don’t think they would have understood me as much.” Ms. Sadat said. “Because when I am working, I forget the mundane, I am up till 2 or 3 in the morning.”

Ms. Sadat tried for years to find a producer for her latest film, but no one was willing to take it on because of the uncertain security environment. So she and Mr. Dildar produced it themselves. They sold one of their two vehicles, an apartment Ms. Sadat had bought with past directorial fees, and her wedding jewelry.

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Guests attending a private open-air screening of ‘A Letter to The President’ in Kabul.

Credit
Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

She also relied on friends. Moby Group provided security and technical staff. Friends offered their houses as sets. Leena Alam, the actress playing Suraya, agreed to take the role for a small sum — which she has yet to be paid.

Because Afghanistan lacks established film studios, each set needed to be created from scratch. And location scouting was a feat in itself, not just because of Ms. Sadat’s exacting eye, but also because of safety considerations.

The scenes in the villages required particularly creative maneuvering, where the crew had to quickly wrap up before word got out that a movie was being shot.

For a prison scene, for example, Ms. Sadat and her crew chose a school. She mixed several shades of paint to find the right color for the walls, and the crew got busy painting. Allergies forced her to go to a hospital that night, but she was back on the set early the next morning.

Mamnoon Maqsoodi, the veteran Afghan actor who plays the president in the film, called its success a remarkable testament to Ms. Sadat’s passion and attention to detail.

“I am touched by her work,” Mr. Maqsoodi said.

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