SONS OF HAJI OMAR

David Newman
Afghanistan 1978 | 58 Min. | BetaSP, OmeU
Q&A with:
Asen Balikci

Film­fo­rum Clas­sic: The pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion his­to­ry of “Sons of Haji Omar” is an inter­est­ing case of polit­i­cal-ide­o­log­i­cal misuse of an ini­tial­ly purely anthro­po­log­i­cal project by major film and tele­vi­sion com­pa­nies who changed its format and ide­o­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. Our basic aim was to describe the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of the three main seg­ments of Afghan soci­ety, the pas­toral, the seden­tary-agri­cul­tur­al and the urban (bazaar towns). We believed that we could best study this inter­con­nect­ed­ness through the process of seden­ter­i­za­tion of a spe­cif­ic pas­toral tribe increas­ing­ly involved in agri­cul­tur­al and bazaar activ­i­ties while still pur­su­ing sheep breed­ing on a tran­shu­mant basis. Field work start­ed in 1974 and pro­ceed­ed with inter­rup­tions until spring 1976. I con­cen­trat­ed on the family of the tribal chief, Haji Omar, who was at the time one of the wealth­i­est men in that part of the coun­try. My research work was ini­tial­ly spon­sored by the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Soci­ety which expect­ed to obtain a pop­u­lar film for its tele­vi­sion series. During early 1976 how­ev­er the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic lost inter­est in the project. As a new spon­sor I found the Nation­al Anthro­po­log­i­cal Film Center at the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion. Our crew, Tim and Patsy Asch and myself, filmed with­out inter­rup­tion for a period of four months during the summer of 1976 expos­ing close to 70 000 feet of 16 mm film, all with sync sound. We cov­ered best pas­toral activ­i­ties with agri­cul­ture and bazaar life coming second. We inte­grat­ed these eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties around the per­son­al­i­ties of our prin­ci­pal pro­tag­o­nists, Haji Omar and his three sons. During the fall of 1976 the Ashes quit the project. The Nation­al Film Board of Canada then took over and we fin­ished the winter sequences with the help of a Cana­di­an crew. In 1978 we start­ed edit­ing in the NFB in Mon­tre­al. I had pre­pared plans for a 3 hours series of 3 films, the first on pas­toral­ism, the second on the bazaar town of Narin, the third on agri­cul­ture. We start­ed edit­ing and were pro­gress­ing suc­cess­ful­ly. Mean­while the civil war in Afghanistan had already start­ed. In this con­text the NFB direc­tor ordered me to replace the 3 hours anthro­po­log­i­cal project with a one hour tele­vi­sion film.

The orig­i­nal 3 hour ver­sion was destroyed and short­ened to an one hour pro­duc­tion. That is the present film, “Sons of Haji Omar”. This film was highly suc­cess­ful and was broad­cast all around the world. The BBC got hold of the film and changed 10 min­utes intro­duc­ing mujahidin scenes which were total­ly out of place. That is how the mate­ri­als of an orig­i­nal sci­en­tif­ic project were changed and used for a com­mer­cial tele­vi­sion show by the NFB and later ide­o­log­i­cal­ly fal­si­fied by the BBC.

Asen Balik­ci, 2002