Film Review: The Black Tulip

Saga of Afghanistan family is unique in terms of point of view but uneven in terms of treatment.

First-time director Sonia Nassery Cole (who also co-wrote, produced and stars in the lead role) makes The Black Tulip a labor of love, telling the fictional story of an Afghan family suffering through war after 2001. Sadly, Cole’s film is limited in its appeal and might not reach a very receptive audience.

Cole and David Michael O’Neill’s story begins in 2010, as Hadar (Haji Gul Aser), the patriarch of his family, is kidnapped and taken to meet a Taliban leader. A lengthy flashback to ten months earlier shows Hadar and his wife, Farishta (Cole), opening a café, The Poet’s Corner, a new version of the business Farishta’s father ran before the Soviet invasion of the 1980s.

As we learn more about the family, we see the rifts and problems within. Most prominently, Belkis (Somaia Razaye), Farishta’s younger sister, plans a future career in medicine but her fiancé, Akram (Walid Amini), wants her to pretend to be less independent in order to please his authoritative father (Karim Jaweed). Troubles continue to brew as U.S. forces fight with the Taliban, leading up to a violent act against Satara (Sadaf Yarmal), Farishta’s youngest daughter, the father’s kidnapping that opened the story, and an ultimate decision concerning the fate of the family.

The Black Tulip is one of the first feature films in recent years to be told from the Afghan perspective. Cole clearly establishes a desire to inform viewers about the hardships suffered by her people during the last decade. One might expect a film with such a mission, not to mention a story with multiple characters and storylines, to reveal a degree of complexity or nuance. But The Black Tulip is surprisingly simplistic in its depictions of the “poor” Afghans, the “evil” Taliban and the “heroic” Americans (Jack Scalia stands out like a sore thumb as a colonel). Even Cole and O’Neill’s dialogue seems artificial, such as the conversations and speeches that preach hope for a freer Afghanistan. Most of the performances follow suit, lacking real depth (in a sense, Scalia’s presence as a one-time TV soap actor is almost symbolic); at least Razaye and Amini are appealing as the young, star-crossed lovers.

Cole is most successful showing episodes of weddings, funerals and other ceremonies, even if some Afghan critics have complained that she Americanized some of the rituals. She is least successful creating suspense, which is much needed in several sequences, including one involving a young girl forced to become a suicide-bomber in a mission to destroy the family café.

What gives The Black Tulip its saving grace is the artful cinematography (credited to Dave McFarland, though Keith Smith was involved until leaving the production just before wrapping). Not only does the photography frame the domestic scenes with a painterly glow, but the scenes shot around the country (mainly Kabul, the Helmand Province, and Northern Bamiyan) are captivating, and hardly as war-torn as most news coverage would have it.

Still, those who have watched those very news reports for the last several years will note a considerable amount of information and history either missing or whitewashed by a film meant to be much more powerful than it really is.