KABUL A young bride silently sobs on the floor watching her mentally disturbed husband gorge on chicken, rub his greasy hands through his hair and scream at her for more, just another chapter in the couple's violent life together.
Film director Saba Sahar anxiously watches the scene by the cameraman, squatting in blue jeans and wearing a bright pink headscarf. "Cut!" she calls.
The first Afghan female in her profession, Sahar, 36, has become a household name after acting and directing for more than half her life. She is adored by Afghan women.
Like other Afghan directors, Sahar says finding actresses is her top challenge in an ultra-conservative Muslim country where many view acting as un-Islamic and inappropriate for women.
"Some Afghans think cinema is a bad place for girls," said 19-year-old Deba Barekzai, who plays the young bride in Sahar's 15-part TV series. "Working in cinema has caused me lots of problems and difficulties."
She spoke to Reuters during a break in filming in a mud and straw house on Kabul's outskirts, her eyes still glistening from a red onion used to force tears in her last scene.
Considered too dangerous by her family to train in Afghanistan -- because of disapproving relatives and the Taliban -- Barekzai went to neighboring Iran to study acting.
ACTRESSES RECEIVE THREATS
Afghan-Canadian director Nelofer Pariza said family pressure stopped several of her actresses from showing up on set when filming 2009's "An Act of Dishonour," a real-life story about an honor killing.
"It was really sad. Fear would actually stop them from coming to work," Pariza told the audience last month following the film's first public screening in Afghanistan.
A film within a film, "An Act of Dishonour" revolves around the fate of an Afghan actress who starred in a film made by Pariza's colleague. Upon discovering his wife had taken part in a film, the husband shot her dead.
Played by actress Marina Golbahari, who achieved global fame from her role as a young girl dressed as a boy in the Afghan film "Osama," she now studies acting in India.
Pariza and Sahar are part of a handful of female Afghan directors who focus on violence against women in a bid to both employ women on screen and expose their plight.
Nine years ago she set up her production company Saba Film specifically with this aim.
"I have two messages for Afghan women and girls. First they should never think they are weak, second they must have self-confidence," said Sahar, whose frank and orderly manner hints at her past as one of Afghanistan's few policewomen.
Called "The Green Leaves of Autumn," her new series evokes hope in the unlikely.
The bride is subject to 'baad', an ancient Afghan tradition when a woman is given as compensation for a crime. Though illegal it is widespread, causing outcry from international rights groups.
In the narrative, she is given to her husband after her brother guns down his relative in a duel. Her family honor is restored, but she is beaten, sexually abused and forced to slave away for a man she despises.
Later, the young woman's brother avenges his sister, and stabs the mentally ill husband to death.
"This is an example of just one of the many problems Afghan women face in today's society," Sahar said.
Further complicating their challenges are the threats the film industry receives from a resurgent Taliban, who banned television and women from most work before their austere rule was toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces a decade ago.
Amid escalating violence across Afghanistan in the tenth year of fighting in the NATO-led war, fear of the Taliban is ever present across many sectors of society.
The Afghan film industry says suicide attacks and bombs threaten the livelihood of its cinema just as much as its lack of quality equipment.
"These are the reasons our cinema today cannot improve," said Latif Ahmadi, a much-loved director and head of Afghan Film, the state-run cinema agency.
He also said financial guarantees to actresses -- as a benefit for their risky work -- are in short supply due to the dire economic situation in a country where more than 40 percent live below the poverty line.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)