LOS ANGELES – Sonia Nassery Cole knew that shooting a movie on location in Afghanistan could get her killed. The most vivid reminder came a few weeks before filming, she said, when militants located her leading actress and cut off both of her feet.
But Cole, an Afghan expatriate with a flair for the dramatic and a history of not taking no for an answer, had her mind made up. Unable to find another actress to take the part – the film is overtly critical of the Taliban – Cole, 45, decided to play the role herself.
"Come hell, come shine, I was going to make this movie," said Cole, a novice filmmaker whose primary job is running the Afghanistan World Foundation, a charity focused on refugees and women’s rights.
Cole, who holds both Afghan and U.S. citizenship and lives in Los Angeles, has been a fixture in Afghan relief efforts since she wrote to President Ronald Reagan as a teenage refugee, and he unexpectedly invited her to the White House. She fled Afghanistan in 1979, although she is murky about the details, explaining that she plans to write a memoir.
"The Black Tulip," a tragic love story that Cole finished at Warner Brothers, is scheduled for its premiere at the Ariana Cinema Theater in Kabul on Thursday. (Military leaders will get a private viewing Wednesday at NATO’s International Security Assistance Force headquarters.) The Sundance Film Festival is a likely next stop, and Afghanistan has submitted the picture as its entry for best foreign film at the next Academy Awards.
It is extraordinarily rare for a feature film to be shot on location in Afghanistan. Even films like "The Kite Runner," the sweeping 2007 movie about two Afghan boys from different economic backgrounds, was mostly filmed in Kashgar, China, because Kabul was too dangerous and because it proved impossible to secure insurance coverage.
Afghanistan at one point had a bustling film industry, but the Taliban banned motion pictures and closed or destroyed theaters. Activity has returned – Cole leaned heavily on a local casting director and the Afghan Film Organization, which is organizing the premiere – but the current U.S.-backed government has remained cautious. "The Kite Runner," for instance, was not released in Afghanistan because of fears that it would inflame ethnic tensions.
Cole’s only previous film experience was directing "The Breadwinner," a 2007 short documentary about an 8-year-old Afghan boy who supports his family by selling calendars. To make "The Black Tulip," she tapped her extensive network of government and philanthropic contacts, begun when Reagan connected her with the Afghanistan Relief Committee.
For instance, singer Natalie Cole, a celebrity ambassador for the Afghanistan World Foundation (but not related to Cole), recorded two songs for the film’s soundtrack. Henry A. Kissinger is a friend from Cole’s younger days spent in neoconservative social circles.
Even with the support, making "The Black Tulip" was anything but easy.
Days on location sometimes began at 4 a.m. because security was easier to provide with fewer pedestrians around, she said. Before the film wrapped production last fall in Kabul, Cole survived a bomb blast that shattered the windows of her hotel, machine gun fire and grim telephone threats warning her to go home.
Three senior crew members – her cinematographer, a producer and a set designer – did just that, abandoning Cole in the middle of production.
"I know I broke her heart," said Keith Smith, the cinematographer who left. "But I could feel death. I didn’t sign up for that."
Cole said she bore some of the responsibility for the defections, conceding that she painted a sanitized picture of life in a war zone while hiring a core crew in Los Angeles. But David McFarland, the cinematographer who replaced Smith, said he understood why she kept some details to herself.
"As the director of this film, she needed us to focus on our jobs and not be freaked out," McFarland said. "What was she supposed to say? ‘Oh, I got a note this morning saying we would all die on the set today. OK, go focus on doing good work!"’
McFarland said Cole did not tell him the reason she was also acting in the movie until after they finished filming. The woman who was to play the role, Zarifa Jahon, now lives with a relative in a remote area of the country, according to Cole, the local casting director and Latif Ahmadi, head of the Afghan Film Organization.
The only person aside from Cole who fully understood the danger of the project may have been her son, Chris. Before leaving last fall for Kabul, she gave him a list of instructions to follow if she ran into trouble.
"It said: ‘If I am abducted, do not make a deal to get me released. Let them torture me. Let them kill me,"’ said Chris Cole, who left a job in investment banking to help his mother produce the film. "It was horrible to hear that from your mother. But she was insistent."
"The Black Tulip," which has a primary cast of 11, takes place from 2001, just before the Taliban were routed from power, to the present day. A Kabul family seizes on a new window of freedom and opens a restaurant called The Poet’s Corner, where artists and writers are encouraged to make use of an open mic. But the Mansouri family soon learns that the Taliban are not gone and pays a mighty price for daring to embrace culture again. Cole plays the passionate mother, Farishta Mansouri.
The tale is all too real: Just this month an article by McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Hashim Shukoor detailed how Taliban insurgents had been trying to reimpose their conservative views on music stores – close, or we’ll blow it up – in the city of Jalalabad.
Cole would not disclose the film’s budget, which she financed by selling personal property, mortgaging her home and relying on credit cards. But it wasn’t cheap. Cole said at one point she had to pay $5,000 for an old microphone. The same seller then demanded an additional $5,000 from a crew member before handing it over. McFarland recalls driving hours around the city looking for a light bulb.
"I spent a small fortune on extortion and security," said Cole, who often listed fake locations on production schedules to minimize danger. "Every couple of days, a random crew member would threaten to turn off the generator if I didn’t pay him a large sum of money.
"You start becoming paranoid very quickly," she added. "Is that crew member you don’t recognize there to help you or is he there to kill you?"