Beyond the media myths in Afghanistan

July 17, 2013

Helen Redmond reviews a film that gives a unique view of occupied Afghanistan.

MY AFGHANISTAN: Life in the Forbidden Zone is a haunting and humorous new documentary about the people who live in southern Afghanistan.

The director, Nagieb Khaja, realized it was too dangerous for a film crew to shoot in Helmand province because of the insurgency. A group of men walking around rural areas with lights, cameras and microphones would probably have been kidnapped or killed.

So Khaja vetted six Afghan civilians--old and young, male and female, Hazara and Pashtun--gave them cell phone cameras and taught them how to use them. His advice to his amateur videographers: "Don't film stuff you think we expect from you. Don't just film four birds and four cows."

That turned out to be excellent advice. The film is full of ordinary moments in the lives of the six people, but they seem intensely extraordinary because they're images we rarely see in the West.

THE SCENES of children are among the most beautiful and powerful. We see boys and girls sleeping on colorful blankets under the shade of a white tarp on the top of a roof. One infant is tied in a cradle. It's quiet.

A scene from My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone
A scene from My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone

Shukrullah, a teenager and surrogate parent, dresses in an elegant white and gold-embroidered shalwar kameez. He is ethnic Hazara, and his story anchors the film.

Shukrullah's camera captures the war that is the backdrop to their lives and literally plays out in their backyards and fields. When the shooting gets close, he frantically gathers the children, and they run up to a room on the second floor. They huddle together, and a girl with a lime green scarf on her head covers the ears of an infant she holds in her lap. Other children plug their ears so they don't have to hear the ricocheting bullets.

The sound of bullets pinging off the walls of the house is stunning: It is the soundtrack to the war on Afghan civilians. The kids are so used to the shooting that there is no screaming or crying. But the fear in their eyes is an image that will stay with viewers for a long time after the film is over.

The documentary shows men taking physical care of their children--a necessary corrective to the narrative that all Afghan fathers are violent misogynists who rape their wives and sell their daughters into sexual slavery.

Abdul Muhammed is a 40-year-old farmer who looks much older. His wife has died. Standing at her grave, his voice cracks with emotion: "She was my partner for 16 years. She supported me in my sorrows and my struggles." He is a single dad raising four children.

Muhammed takes to heart Khaja's directive to not film the expected, and records a group of British soldiers meeting with the locals.

A central tenet of the U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine promoted by former Gen. David Petraeus was to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Soldiers would meet with village elders who make up a shura--an elected council. But the two sides don't meet as equals--the Afghans are the occupied and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is the well-armed occupier. Western audiences have rarely seen the content of these meetings.

Muhammed's camera reveals a young soldier who speaks awkwardly from a prepared script to a tent full of turbaned men with full beards: "Superficially, we of ISAF may look a little different, in different colored uniforms, and our beards are not so good. But at heart, we are exactly the same. I am at one with the government in that we want to have a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan." Muhammed's camera zooms in on a man rolling his eyes at that statement.

The soldier's cringe-inducing, dishonest monologue speaks volumes about how fundamentally disrespectful and cynical the ISAF is toward the Afghan people. As Nagieb Khaja said in an interview:

One of my friends in Denmark is a famous author, and he's come to Afghanistan. Sometimes he says the most fantastic, precise things, like this: Imagine that Chinese forces come to Denmark, they ally themselves with the most ruthless gang in the country, and they walk around with weapons and raid your house, and they tell you they want to create a better world for you. Imagine how Danes would react.

This is what happens in these meetings between Afghans and the military. The military stands with the governors who are gangsters and then tell the Afghan people they want to improve their lives.

Another subject of the film, Haji Sahib, drives a 70-year-old, rusty blue jeep with no brakes, and his jittery camera shows him and his children taking a wild and hilarious ride along bumpy roads filled with potholes. He shouts at other drivers, "Out of my way! I have no brakes! You're not a good man either!"

Sahib's camera captures the lush countryside in the south of Afghanistan where farming is a cherished way of life. But the war has destroyed much of the agrarian economy--with the exception of poppy, which is used to make heroin. Afghanistan supplies 90 percent of the heroin consumed in Central Asia and Europe.

Helmand province is one of the largest growers of poppy in the country, and farmers and their families depend on the crop for survival. Poppy cultivation is illegal. In a moment that neatly defines the conflict, a poppy farmer says, "If they've banned opium, why don't they ban these bombings."

THIS IS very much a film about the lives of Afghan men and boys, but not because Khaja wanted it that way. Getting women to participate in a documentary made by a group of men from another country wasn't easy because of cultural norms.

In Afghanistan, there is a strict separation between men and women called "pashtunwali." Women can only associate with male family members, and they aren't allowed to leave home without mahram, a male family member who must accompany them everywhere. Women are rarely seen in public, especially in the rural areas. There is also suspicion of those who work with foreigners.

These cultural factors along with the Taliban insurgency made it difficult to find women who would join the project. "For women, there is an extra boundary to cross," Khaja said, "a boundary of social norms, and when she crosses boundaries, the consequences are much more severe for her. If women work with men they don't know, they will be asked: Why did you work with foreign men?"

But Khaja was able to put cameras into the hands of two brave women: Nargis and Fereshtah. Both risked their lives to contribute to the film.

Nargis is a 45-year-old widower, who has a job in a health clinic. She is a modern, confident woman, covered head to toe in black, who struggles with the sexism that limits her life choices.

Khaja interviews Nargis and asks why won't men allow women to be photographed. She replies angrily, "A brother won't even let his sister leave the house to visit relatives. All sorts of people live in Afghanistan. There is no freedom. So for a woman, it is not possible to film outside. Not even inside a shop." But using a camera to film her family gives Nargis a sense of control and freedom. This is the power of art to explore the contradictions of the human condition.

Fereshtah is 15 and a student who loves to study. The camera finds her in a small room in her home with an outdated computer. She plugs it in and says matter-of-factly, "We have no electricity. Anyway, this is the computer I use. When the electricity comes back on, I use the computer."

Fereshtah's camera perfectly captures a moment that is repeated all over Afghanistan--a lack of the most basic resources holding back the intellectual development of the Afghan people. Fereshtah wants to be a journalist. Khaja implores Fereshtah to interview more women, telling her, "If you make a documentary featuring 99 percent men, it will not be able to tell the real story of Afghanistan."

My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone is storytelling that manages to be both powerful and subtle. It is told through the eyes of the people most directly affected by the war and occupation. The cameras of these civilian videographers, unfiltered by the Western media, capture the beauty and danger that exists side by side in Afghanistan.

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