Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: ‘Afghanistan’s Fatal Flower'

By Justin De Freitas
Friday May 19, 2006

Berkeley filmmakers Cliff Orloff and Olga Shalygin return to the public airwaves this weekend with their latest documentary about Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.  

Afghanistan’s Fatal Flower, a half-hour look at the opium trade, airs on KQED at Sunday at 2 p.m. and again on KQED World at 9 a.m. and noon on Tuesday, May 23. 

Orloff and Shalygin track the production of opium from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the streets of the world’s urban capitals. The path, like the issue itself, is complex, winding through various strata of society.  

Though the reins of power have changed hands, Afghanistan is far from the success story the Bush administration would have us believe. The warlords may have exchanged their fatigues for business suits in an attempt to gain public respectability but their practices have apparently changed little, as they still maintain private militias that are funded primarily by the opium trade. And their opulent lifestyles, in marked contrast to the people they claim to represent, can only be funded—in a country where the average income is well below a dollar a day—by illicit activity. 

Afghanistan is responsible for 87 percent of the world’s heroin, which may give an idea of just how much money is to be made in the business, and consequently just how strong the allure of the trade is for the country’s poor farmers. One farmer is quoted as saying that a field of poppies can bring in more than 20 times as much money as a field of cotton.  

Gold is still the traditional method of storing one’s wealth, but Fatal Flower shows that opium has become far more lucrative. It essentially serves as Afghanistan’s stock market. From farmers and smugglers to politicians and warlords, everyone along the chain of production socks away stockpiles of opium to sell at a later date when the price is high. In a nation of great uncertainty, the illicit opium trade has filled a gaping void, proving to be not just a seductive and lucrative side business, but one of the few sources of economic and cultural stability.