Sunday, July 31, 2005

#17: On Women & Documentaries in the New Afghan Cinema 11/18/04 Earlier this month I was excited to read a small sidebar in Sunday’s PARADE Magazine announcing this week’s PBS Television national premiere, as part of the Independent Lens series, of AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED, a 52-minute documentary about Afghan women made largely by young Afghan women just learning to be journalists. This is the film Laura Bush mentioned last summer during her Republican Convention speech, after she met personally with two of the young journalists – the kind of attention that should also spur early DVD release. I was excited because I had the great luck to see this film last June here in Syracuse, thanks to a visit from Deborah Alexander between her stints to Kabul. Former Syracusan & WVR guest several times, Deborah’s worked in Afghanistan twice recently, first for the US State Department’s Agency for International Development & most recently consulting on the election. We’ve shared her email reflections from time to time on-air too. One of her projects with USAID had involved collaboration with several groups – the Asia Foundation, UNESCO & the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs – in supporting this effort to teach young Afghan women video journalism & get this film made. The women’s camera training course was launched in the summer of 2002 under auspices of an NGO founded to repair the war’s mental & cultural destruction called Aine, the Afghan Media & Cultural Center. Aine means “mirror” in the Farsi language, & Deborah was enthusiastic about the resulting film’s accuracy. “This really shows Afghanistan,” she told me, “the people & the country that I saw there.” Well, AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED didn’t air here in Central New York on Tuesday night at 10 p.m. The program on post 9/11 architecture had been slated “for months.” But WCNY, Channel 24 will air it on Saturday, December 18th at 6 o’clock. And its premiere in the US is important. French TV journalist Brigitte Brault, who directed AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED, began training 14 Afghan women in their late teens to be video journalists less than a year after 9/11. The film follows seven of them as they collect oral histories of other women in four locales. She noted in Tuesday’s NEW YORK TIMES that teaching the women to use cameras themselves was “deeply provocative.” None of these young women had ever traveled outside Kabul before. The film documents firsts plane rides, first river-fordings, first horseback trips. But this isn’t a “what-I-did-last-summer” movie. In Bamyan, where the Taliban dynamited ancient giant Buddhas carved into the cliffs, they visit families living in caves. These are the Hazzaras, an ethnically obscure tribe whose history includes women warriors on horseback who guarded the Buddhas. The Taliban pursued the Hazzaras with particular viciousness. Besides killing the men during the 2001 massacre, Taliban burned & bulldozed houses with women & children inside, cut off women’s breasts, & dismembered one woman’s male infant. Making tea by firelight, one old woman named Zanaib challenges the young journalists to visit even more ravaged spots. Relations with men vary widely both by region & individual. Herat is just an hour’s journey from Kabul by air, but at that point was the bailiwick of the warlord Ishmael Khan, & fiercely conservative. Even the men there are reluctant to bring their women for interviews. In Jalalabad, the Pashtun chief Faridoon escorts & guards the group as long as they are in his territory, finally negotiating with one local elder to permit interviews with the nomadic Koochi women. In Badakshan, home of poppies, legendary hospitality & the polo-like sport of buzkashi, they encounter a woman who describes the mutilation, rape & death she once risked if she refused an arranged marriage. Also in Badakshan, 20 year-old Mehria Aziz – who at 8 lost her mother to a stray mujahadeen bullet & who’s now visited Laura Bush - stands up to an angry crowd of men & informs them that the Koran actually does not require women to wear the floor-length chadori. Throughout, these young women are keenly aware of what they do. Mehria says simply, “We are the first women journalists in our country.” They deeply feel what other Afghan women have endured & they weep on camera. Afghan cinema has not been indifferent to Afghan women. Despite invasions & civil war, despite the Taliban closing the movie theatres & banning film for six years, Kabul’s small but vigorous & cosmopolitan film industry dates from the 1960’s. When the national film organization’s head, Siddiq Barmak, returned from exile after the Taliban regime fell, his first film project was the stunning Golden Globe-winner OSAMA, about a young girl who disguises herself as a boy & is found out. Barmak’s cast was entirely amateur, including former Taliban soldiers who participated to make amends & the pre-teen lead whom Barmak discovered surviving as a street beggar. Films like Majid Majidi’s BARAN, British director Michael Winterbottom’s IN THIS WORLD, the haunting Canadian KANDAHAR, & others made in collaboration with filmmakers from neighboring Iran, Tajikistan, & India, have reached US audiences through limited release in large cities, regional festivals, discerning DVD shops & now PBS. Last spring New York City’s Tribeca Festival screened two new documentaries about Afghan women, THE BEAUTY SCHOOL OF KABUL & AFGHANISTAN: THE LOST TRUTH, the latter following Iranian actress/director Yassamin Maleknasr as she interviewed women across the country. In fact, I saw AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED soon after Syracuse’s own first Film & Video Fest, which offered a rich crop of documentaries, many women-made, including a sequel, RETURN TO KANDAHAR. Zana Briskie’s BORN INTO BROTHELS, now going into theatrical release around the turn of the new year, also screened at the Syracuse festival. A good companion piece to AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED, Briskie’s film chronicles her project to teach photography to street children in India. Both films open with a group of short profiles of their young students - conventionally unlikely candidates - then follow them through the learning & application of their craft as they in turn document life around them. No doubt in the course of their work they will find the next generation too. Whether presented as documentary or fiction, this “nested box” narrative of the continual apprenticeship of our storytellers is one the most compelling ways for cultures in crisis to start to right themselves. AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED as provocative as a film & as a project because it refreshes our ideas about the forms & purposes of documentaries. Beyond a center position of “objectivity,” a documentary’s stance can expand on either side. In one direction, strategically “personal” stories further audience identification, with the filmmaker actively composing the narrative. This approaches the richness of good cinematic fiction. In the US Ross McEllwee’s documentary work has done this, for example. In the other direction are political commentary & interpretation. Conveying the true breadth of subject-as-citizen, you just might need both wings. Either so-called “non-objective” stance has risks, especially with novices. In particular, venturing into the personal magnifies novice status & can look self-indulgent. A slippery slope ensues, because in this light any technical awkwardness becomes more glaring. The Western women who directed, narrated & edited this film mostly keep themselves our of the spotlight. They know exactly whose personal story is the point here, so that AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED deftly side steps the pitfalls of the personal. Here, I think, is what that offers us & why it works. This film acknowledges the historic nature, dignity & danger of the work undertaken by the young journalists. I have rarely seen any “We are the first” embodied with such visceral immediacy. Putting the journalist apprentices themselves so centrally on-screen makes their evolving & reciprocal conversation with the women they encounter & record itself a subject of the film rather than just an interesting, even if heart-warming, by-product. This has the function of role modeling the training of journalists & their relationship with their own communities. What will the care & feeding of a free media & its practitioners look like in this new, fragile & much beleaguered democracy? Just holding elections is the quick & dirty version of nation building. AFGHANISTAN UNVEILED is one of the strongest arguments I’ve seen for nurturing other institutions in civil society & one of the greatest justifications for some of the projects undertaken in Afghanistan that never make our own front pages. And this film is anything but technically awkward. Indeed, the film’s visual fluency is one of its strongest features. I suspect this comes of the practice & demands of working wartime journalism. The young Afghan women have mentors who use their cameras every day, under extreme pressure in shifting conditions, meeting deadlines, of necessity communicating in flexible, arresting & economical ways. Here is the source of the fire-lit close-ups & the sweeping panoramas, both at the right moment, & just the right balance of show & tell. Don’t miss AFGHNAISTAN UNVEILED on the 18th of December on WCNY Channel 24. We’ll remind you. (1481)