Dr Sarmast’s Music School

Afghanistan’s Institute of Music helps revitalise a ruined culture and gives children a chance to transform their lives.

Filmmakers: Polly Watkins and Beth Frey

In 2001, when the Taliban was toppled from power, Afghanistan’s musical culture was left in ruins. Music gradually came back onto the streets and into people’s lives, but by 2009 there was still no orchestra capable of playing the Afghan national anthem.

In that year, renowned musicologist Dr Ahmad Sarmast returned from exile in Australia, and the Ministry of Education charged him with establishing the first National Institute of Music (ANIM). Based in what had been Kabul’s School of Fine Arts, ANIM got off to a slow start: the building was a ruin and there were virtually no instruments.

Dr Sarmast’s Music School follows ANIM’s progress over two years as, gradually, the school is repaired and made habitable. Fine instruments – many donated by foreign sponsors – flood in, and the school’s 150 pupils gradually learn to play to professional standards.

Perhaps, most importantly, ANIM offers hope to some of the country’s most deprived children; those snatching a meagre income from working on the streets who find – through music – a way to transform their lives.

Filmmaker’s view

By Polly Watkins

The film’s narrative is driven by Ahmed’s quest to establish Afghanistan’s first national music institute and his determination to recruit street children and orphans as its students. Underpinning this essentially simple story, in a country where music had been banned, is the fact that what is at stake here is not simply just learning about music, but the freedom to express music as a basic human right.

Stylistically, I wanted to exploit the natural low-light interiors of the old school building Ahmad inherited as the basis of the new building he would transform it into. I wanted to do this prior to its refurbishment, so as to describe the limitations and difficulties the students and teachers faced while trying to learn and teach music in such bleak conditions, and for there to be a sense of increasing light developing as the renovations progress and the narrative unfolds. So this initial darkness and chaos gives way to lightness and a new order. The transformed school – the first National Institute of Music in Afghanistan – becomes a place of hopes and dreams, as a new vibrant musical culture is being born.

Given the media’s focus on Afghanistan as a place of ongoing conflict, and given that the reasons for this are very complex and not within the scope of this story, I chose to keep the presence of conflict in the background; to keep the focus on the daily life of the school so, ultimately, the audience could directly experience the sense of hope, joy and immense creativity that has been unleashed here.

The film is peppered with the occasional presence of silhouetted choppers, seen or heard overhead, or a glimpse of an armoured vehicle in the midst of a busy Kabul street. These serve as a reminder that this is a conflict zone, while repeated simple motifs such as a beautiful full-blown red rose growing near barbed wire or a bird flying free over barbed wire are used to express the juxtaposition of creativity and conflict; it is also a reminder of the fragility of this new energy if it is not nurtured and protected.

The filming is a mix of hand-held observational filming with some calmer more controlled filming using a tripod. So at times the camera is right in the midst of the action, following Ahmad as he deals with the problems he encounters as he strives to get things happening, while at other times there are moments when the audience can step back and experience the daily rhythm and life of the school as it transforms.

Being a music school where students are learning and performing a range of music, both Western and Eastern, a score has been developed by composer Dale Cornelius to link the diverse musical elements that became an inherent part of the filmed sound; as well as music that was filmed in classes and performances during our shoot, the ANIM faculty and students have contributed additional music they have performed and recorded for us. There is also some archival music by Ahmad’s father, Ustad Salim Sarmast (1930-1990), who was one of Afghanistan’s most respected composers and conductors.

undefinedThis episode of Witness can be seen from Wednesday, January 16, at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2000; Thursday: 1200; Friday: 0100; Saturday: 0600; Sunday: 2000; Monday: 1200; Tuesday: 0100.

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