Interview with Fereshta Kazemi, an Afghan Actor in Hollywood

Award winning actress Fereshta Kazemi is one of the most successful Afghan actresses in Hollywood. Award winning actressHer energy, talent and continuous fight to bring fresh view to cinema inspires us. Whether you are in Afghanistan, in Finland or in the U.S., Fereshta carries that special ‘aura’ to pull any viewer to the screen.

Fereshta Kazemi

Award-winning actress, Fereshta Kazemi. © FINNBAY-MN

Fereshta, How did everything start?

I was seven years old and saw actors on American TV & thought I could do this. As a teen, I worked at the mall, then paid for acting, singing and dance classes in secret from my Afghan parents on the weekends and after school. I rehearsed a lot in my room from exercises in Stanislavsky’s and Chekhov’s acting books. One time when I was fifteen, I routinely rehearsed in my room, and my mother was ever curious and fascinated by what I was doing.

At 17 years old, I told my parents that in America, a person becomes a legal adult at 18 and that they couldn’t tell me what to do anymore, and I was going to be an actress, not a doctor.

“her performance in…”The Icy Sun”, tackles the taboo subject of rape, speaks honestly about the situation of women [in Afghanistan].” FOX News, NewsWeek Pakistan

At 18 years old, I flew myself out to NYC, auditioned at some schools and won an acting and academic scholarship to Marymount Manhattan College in the upper east side of Manhattan. I also explored “Uta Hagen” classes. I took breaks in between at times, to study other things, then eventually moved to Los Angeles, CA where I worked on trying to get into acting. After some time, I got connected to a graduate program for Acting on film at Academy of Art University and studied there at the masters level. One of my first major auditions was for “The Kite Runner”. I didn’t get the part, but it got my name out among the Afghan diaspora around the world through social media.

In 2009, I starred in a film about Afghanistan called “Heal” directed by Mian Adnan Ahmad. The film won twenty domestic &international film festivals around the world, including, Best Science Fiction/Film at “Comic Con International Film Festival” (2011), “The Frank D. Capra Award” (2011), and The Humanitarian Award at “Cleveland International Film Festival” (2011).

I also did my first U.S. feature film called “Targeting”, directed by Tarique Qayumi and produced by Alan De La Rosa, a psychological thriller that had a budget of one million dollars. When I came to Afghanistan, I was ready for what happened when I got there.

I was discovered at “Flower St. Cafe” in Kabul, Afghanistan, by the Los Angeles Times, after I met a journalist named Ned Parker who connected me to then next report, David Zucchino, who shared my journey as an actress with the world, and the story has continued.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in “Shahray Now”, Kabul. I left when I was 2 1/2. My mother, sister & I fled to Thailand where my father was finishing his Masters in Engineering. Afterwards, we settled into NY, and I grew up in what I call my “New-Yorkistan”.

Award-winning actress, Fereshta Kazemi. © FINNBAY-MN

Award-winning actress, Fereshta Kazemi. © FINNBAY-MN

How does it feel to represent Afghanness in Western productions?

I have the most satisfying feeling to be in movies now. I’ve spent my entire life in a sort of exile from the Afghan-American diaspora because I chose to pursue acting. Even though its slowly becoming more accepted, when I started it out pursing acting in the U.S., it was unheard of for an Afghan, especially an Afghan girl to pursue acting; it was considered a type of moral transgression.

With an acting & academic scholarship, empowered me, I also gained a professional mark on my journey despite the pressure & alienation I felt from our culture. It has been the most rewarding experience of my life to be in cinema.

In Afghanistan, I played the role of a character which is very difficult for current Afghan society to accept. I played the role of an Afghan rape victim in “The Icy Sun”, a woman who has dreams and hopes and then is violated, and all of culture, the law, family, & friends turn their back on her.

“One of the most powerful performances I have ever seen [for the Icy Sun],” Fazul Rahim (NBC News).

Women are jailed there for being raped. Its not just about rape, but about the sexuality of women, which I believe is used as a battle ground for power in Afghan culture. This has a painful psychological effect on myself and my generation, and not just on the women, but also the men, especially the youth.

Our bodies and our sexuality are part of our humanity, we don’t deserve this sort of severe control and pressure.

“Kazemi’s acting carries…intensity…drawing the viewer into an emotional situation without losing a deeper empathy. Her acting is refreshing to see on the screen,” Jane Ferguson, Al Jazeera English.

Also, speaking about these issues doesn’t mean people are out of control sexually, it just means we are trying to be healthy, and honest and responsible for ourselves and not let others damage our perception of ourselves. So, for me this role, is a protest against these current Afghan cultural notions, a protest for my own humanity, and anyone in my generation who feels hurt by it.

To be able to do this through cinema is an enormous gift for me, both artistically as an actress, and as a human being.

What are your upcoming goals?

I’ve acted in film in the U.S. and in Afghanistan. My goals are to continue to act in films, in particular socially conscious stories which challenge our perceptions of the world, and where we learn something, but also maybe some romantic comedies and action adventure films which are some of my favorite genres besides drama.

Have you won any awards?

Yes, I won a “Best Actress Award” at the 2nd Afghanistan Human Rights Film Festival this past Oct. 2013 for “The Icy Sun”. The message of our film is reaching worldwide now to the US, to all the latin countries, to europe, to the middle east, to asia, and we are submitting our film to more festivals.

Also, as I mentioned before, my prior film I starred in, “Heal”, won “The Humanitarian Award” at Cleveland International Film Festival in 2011.

What do you think about Afghan Cinema, how much has it gone forward since the wars?

Yes, I am excited about Afghan cinema. Directors such as such as my director for “The Icy Sun”, Ramin Mohammadi, of the new generation make me excited about the future of Afghan Cinema. This story was created and ready when I arrived in Afghanistan, by people like Ramin who grew up under the Taliban, and used to sell gum in the streets to help his family survive, and now look where he is, creating Afghan films which are exploring important journeys for women, and he’s a man.

Award-winning actress, Fereshta Kazemi. © FINNBAY-MN

Award-winning actress, Fereshta Kazemi. © FINNBAY-MN

Afghan-French directors Atiq Rahimi and Barmak Akram also make me proud, both are creating challenging, nuanced stories centered around women in a honest and poetic way.

What do you think of women in Burqa?

I lived in Afghanistan for 13 months straight and I still can’t get used to the Burqa, especially the numerous numbers of them. Its alien to me and my family of Afghan women.

None of us were raised wearing them, and they were not part of my family’s generation of Afghan identity. I don’t think people should judge the Afghan women who wear them, many feel forced or use it to protect themselves from an aggressive environment in Afghanistan, but its important to note that the burqa was “imposed” on women during a time of terror in Afghanistan in the 1990’s.

“She has a certain fire in her. She brought a lot of energy to the role,” Tarique Qayumi, Director of “Targeting”, L.A. Times

The burqa is a piece of clothing which is now almost inseparable from that time of terror in Afghanistan. It used to be just a sort of cultural of dress in Afghanistan, practiced mostly in rural village areas I believe. There was not the type of tyranny associated with the burqa that there is now.

I believe much of the tyranny which has occurred during these last thirty five years of war has shaped a big part of the identity of current Afghanistan. This is an imposed identity, imposed by terror and this burqa holds a piece of this identity now. As a person with deep historical roots to the peaceful Afghanistan, I think we should leave the burqa behind for now, until it loses this meaning.

Thank you, Fereshta

About Mustafa Najafizada

Mustafa is a reporter at FINNBAY covering Afghanistan war and politics.

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