The Black Tulip is a disappointing movie made by a woman who was obviously sincere in her efforts and had the best of intentions. This would be Sonia Nassery Cole, the director as well as the star, a co-writer, and one of the producers. A socialite known on both the New York and Los Angeles circles, she hails from Kabul, Afghanistan, where the film is set, and has since 2001 devoted much of her life to raising money for humanitarian causes in that part of the world. This would include providing medical care for land-mine victims, the construction of a hospital for mothers and their children, and the opening of a boarding school for girls. Much of this came about through her non-profit organization Afghanistan World Foundation, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars since its establishment in 2002.
Her call to action came to her in 1979 at age fourteen, when her father’s political connections allowed her to escape Soviet-occupied Afghanistan for Islamabad, Pakistan. Upon her immigration to America, she landed a job at the United Nations and began a letter correspondence with President Ronald Regan, who she believed could do something. A friendship between the two was soon formed, and by the time she was nineteen, Cole found herself organizing fundraisers and rubbing elbows with Washington’s anti-Soviet elite. In the ensuing years, she has made connections with politicians, filmmakers, and diplomats, all of which proved invaluable when it came to the financing and production of this film, her feature-length directorial debut.
Shot on location in Kabul, rumors continue to swirl about how troubled principal photography was. A bomb blast, machine-gun fire, and telephone death threats against Cole prompted her cinematographer, her co-producer, and her set designer to abandon production before it was completed. Furthermore, according to Cole, she assumed the lead role only after her first choice of actress, Zarifa Jahon, had her feet severed by Islamic militants. This claim has generated controversy amongst many in the Afghani film industry, who assert they have never heard of any actress by that name and weren’t made aware of such an incident. The head of the Afghan Film Organization, Latif Ahmadi, boldly speculated that it was nothing more than propaganda. Upon viewing the finished film, others in the industry were shocked and baffled by scenes depicting behaviors and events said to be culturally and politically impossible.
Not knowing truth from rumor, and being admittedly ignorant of authentic Afghani customs, I can only go by the film itself, a genuine effort that unfortunately plays it safe. Taking place in 2010, it tells the story of a Kabul family, the Mansouris, and their restaurant, in which a stage and an open mic have been set up for poets and artists. For the wife, Farishta (Cole), it’s a personal victory; the building was once a bookstore owned by her father, who was killed by Russians during the Soviet occupation. It’s also a symbol of a utopian Afghanistan and a slap in the face of the Taliban, a faction so oppressive that artistic expression is strictly forbidden. It’s one thing to be optimistic. It’s quite another thing to be hopelessly naïve. For her to believe that a militant fundamentalist sect could have no power over her, her family, or her place of business shows an astounding lack of insight.
Meanwhile, there’s a soapy romance between Farishta’s kid sister, Belkis (Somaia Razaya), and her fiancé, Akram (Walid Amini), who’s afraid his traditionalist father won’t approve of her entering medical school. There are also several scenes with key personal of the U.S. and Italian militaries visiting the restaurant and getting on splendidly with the Mansouris. These characters serve no real purpose, apart from reinforcing the film’s anti-Taliban sentiments. And then there are scenes of tragedy, all of which could conceivably happen in real life and yet are written and staged so melodramatically that they still manage to come off as painfully contrived. Indeed, specific passages of dialogue sound every bit as scripted as they actually are, playing less like dramatic conversations and more like self-indulgent sermons.
The story is bookended by scenes with Farishta’s husband, Hadar (Haji Gul Aser), although I don’t think I should reveal the circumstances under which he’s seen. I can say that his actions pave the way for an ending so blindly idealistic that it must have been inspired by a Frank Capra movie. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with idealism. I am saying that it doesn’t have much use when the reality of the situation paints a much different picture. Back in 2011, The Black Tulip was Afghanistan’s submission to the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film. It would ultimately not receive a nomination, and now I understand why. Although a well-meaning film, it’s so obviously the work of an amateur. With time, perhaps she will blossom into a talented filmmaker. Until then, we should at least give her credit for her noble humanitarian work.
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