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Fereshta Kazemi takes a risky stand for acting in Afghanistan

Actress Fereshta Kazemi violates codes on dress and work in the country to try to change the culture. There are threats, and recently an actress was killed.

December 30, 2012|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

Sadam Niko, 21, who plays Kazemi's love interest in the serial, "Kocha-e-Ma" (Our Street), said of his costar: "I think she's so brave." If the war ever ends, he said, "All these problems will just go away."

Kazemi is living temporarily with relatives in a conservative neighborhood where most women wear burkas. She refuses to wear even a head scarf.

PHOTOS: Kazemi in Kabul

"I respect the traditions of being covered, but I will not cover my hair. I won't," she said.

The men in the shop next to her relatives' house gossip about her, she said, and stare as she strolls past. Her male cousins insist on escorting her every time she walks to find a taxi.

One cousin told her that he would be shamed and would deny he was her relative if she appears on the TV serial. When she told him to have courage, he said it was about honor, not courage.

"He told me: 'You'll be considered a prostitute,'" she said. "The value of a female is directly connected to male honor. Her reputation — how she looks and behaves in public — is all that matters. And it's all tied to sexuality."

When Kazemi mentioned to her aunt that she plans to find her own apartment, she was told that she would first need her parents' permission.

This is true, said Kazemi's mother, who lives with Fereshta's father in the Bay Area. Kazemi asked that her mother's name not be published because she has worked in Afghanistan as a translator for American troops.

Parents had other ideas

Kazemi's parents are classic immigrant strivers who wanted their daughter to become a doctor. Both are professionals who fled Afghanistan after Fereshta's father was put on a death list by the communist government, Kazemi said. The family lived in Thailand before moving to New York when Kazemi was 6.

Even as a child, Kazemi wanted to be an actress, her mother said. "She always told me: 'One day, I'll go back to Afghanistan and change things,'" she said.

The other day, Kazemi was trying on a wedding dress for a movie role as an Afghan woman married in a village. She playfully suggested that she discard the wedding cloak and instead bare her shoulders.

PHOTOS: Faces to watch in 2013

"No! Cover your shoulders!" the movie's producer, Omar Zazai Ramin, told her. "Do you want to get us all killed?"

Even for men, filmmaking is often considered base and subversive, said Qayumi, the filmmaker: "Respect for the industry isn't there yet."

Qayumi spoke inside a high-rise construction site, where he was filming "The Road to the Truth," about the April 15 attack on Kabul's diplomatic zone by insurgents firing from an unfinished high-rise. The docu-drama's stars are the actual Afghan rapid response police who fought the attackers. One officer flung stones at rubber-neckers who gathered too close to the set.

Western-raised Afghans like Qayumi and Kazemi, who plans to stay here for a year, want to show that cinema can honor Afghan culture by creating admirable, nuanced characters. They resent the insipid Indian, Turkish and Iranian dramas that dominate Afghan TV and overshadow locally made productions.

"Every nation needs its storytellers," Qayumi said. "Afghans are working to heal their country — police, doctors, soldiers. What we're doing is building heroes."

Kazemi met Qayumi when he sought Afghan American actresses while completing his master's degree in screenwriting at UCLA. She won the role of the Afghan wife of an Afghan immigrant hounded in Los Angeles by a female American soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kazemi said she persuaded Qayumi to make her character — a traditional wife — stronger and more willful. She lobbied for and won a fleeting scene in which she and her husband kiss in the movie, "Targeting," a psychological thriller written by Qayumi.

PHOTOS: Kazemi in Kabul

Qayumi said he gave Kazemi the part because "she has a certain fire in her. She brought a lot of energy to the role."

One cold evening in Kabul, at a private club on a trash-strewn dirt street, "Targeting" was screened on a swatch of white cloth tacked to a brick wall. Qayumi, wearing a "Rambo III" T-shirt, propped the projector on a napkin box.

The audience represented a slice of Kabul's young, hip, urbane milieu. The dominant language was English with smatterings of Dari. Kazemi sat up front, well dressed and elegantly coiffed.

In the film, Kazemi's character spoke in Dari and English. The wife is respectful but bold enough to argue with her husband. In a brief long shot, they kiss. When the credits rolled, everyone applauded and whistled. Kazemi and Qayumi rose to answer audience questions.

Kazemi had a question of her own. "I don't know if everybody caught the kiss — did you?" she said. "I hope so. It's very important."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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