[11 March 2013]
“Nothing is easy in Afghanistan,” says filmmaker Eva Orner. Her new documentary The Network premiers in Austin at SXSW Film on Monday, March 11th. The film is a thought-provoking, often heart-breaking look at Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s first independent television station. The Network traces the roots of Tolo from a small radio station started by entrepreneur Saad Mohseni to its current position as a modern TV network with a mix of programming that viewers in modernized countries would find familiar—and perhaps surprising given the negative cloud that usually hangs over Afghanistan in the mainstream media. Orner previously produced Taxi to the Dark Side, an Academy Award-winning documentary that told the tragic story of an Afghani taxi driver who was killed by American soldiers in the Parwan Detention Facility.
The Network is a bright film that shines light on the accomplishments of a talented, dedicated group of Afghanis who have worked hard to bring their country real media in the wake of 30 years of war. Viewers will be touched by the hard work of the station’s Afghani staff and the wise, compassionate leadership provided by a handful of foreigners who are dedicated to establishing high-quality media in a country that has so often been left behind by the rest of the world.
Perhaps the most poignant portions of the documentary highlight women who work at Tolo TV. Some of the women have defied their families in order to work at the station. All of the women are taking a brave stand in a country that is still largely run by and designed for men. Throughout the film, the women talk about their aspirations to lead the types of lives that so many of the world’s women take for granted. They talk about bringing some form of feminism to their country and express righteous outrage at the poor treatment of women in the country, especially in the provinces and rural areas.
Intrigued and touched by this fascinating documentary, PopMatters spent some time speaking with Eva Orner before the film’s premiere at SXSW. Her responses shed light on why The Network isn’t just another film about a war-torn country.
* * *
Many viewers will have some familiarity with Tolo TV thanks to the documentary Afghan Star. Have things changed substantially since its release in 2009?
I think it’s quite shocking when you watch Afghan Star now after watching The Network because it looks so much more like a network now. I mean, when I first arrived there I thought, wow, this is a TV station put together with gaffer’s tape. But compared to how it was when they made Afghan Star, it’s actually quite sophisticated.
Was showing something positive part of what drove you to return to Afghanistan as the subject of a documentary?
Yeah, absolutely. I’d read about Saad and his family, I’ve seen Afghan Star and I thought, wouldn’t it be nice in the face of impending withdrawal and huge changes in the country at the end of occupation, essentially, to really surprise people with a story that’s not about the military? That’s not about war. Any story in Afghanistan is going to touch on war, because they’ve had 30 years of it, but I just thought wouldn’t it be great to introduce the world to a group of young, articulate, fresh-faced young people who just want a chance? Who just want a chance to live a life, a life like we take for granted.
When did you first go to Afghanistan?
I first went there in February 2011 for a month, alone, with a camera. And I’m not a war correspondent or a toughened veteran or something, I’m a blonde girl and I was pretty nervous. It was scary. I didn’t know what to expect. But it turned out to be amazing and I shot some initial material. I spent a lot of time with Saad and the people at Tolo and got a sense of the country. I came back later that year for two months to make the actual film.
How important do you think new media in Afghanistan is, especially for the progress of women in the country?
I think it’s huge. It’s so interesting. I don’t know the exact number, but the number of Afghans who have access to television, the number of Afghans who own mobile phones, the number that use Facebook is extraordinary. I think things like television and radio and social media can change a country so long as something dreadful doesn’t happen, which I hope it doesn’t, in terms of a Taliban takeover or civil war. But I think that the public is very, very young, the average age is about 24, and they want to be educated and they want to be connected with the world.
The illiteracy rate there is staggering. It’s around 60 or 70 percent and they estimate that the way things are going, that will drop dramatically in the next generation or two and it will be comparable with more modern countries. I think that’s the key to making change in that country. I think the gains that have been made over the last 11 years really have affected women enormously, more in cities, more in places like Kabul where they have access to education and employment.
I think when you go out into the provinces, in a lot of parts of the country, it’s pretty dire—women aren’t educated, people are illiterate, and women are mostly burqa-clad still but in the cities the young, educated, fortunate women who have either defied their families or their families have allowed them to be educated and go out into the workforce have really flourished.
I think you just see their magic and their beauty in the film. They kind of inspire me beyond belief and they also break my heart because it’s tough for them. They still have to deal with arranged marriages, they still have to deal with criticisms from the general public and members of their family for working. It’s a very divided country still on that level. But I definitely think the women are just incredibly heroic and brave.
There’s footage in the film of a women’s-only concert put on by an extremely popular musician who you liken to Michael Jackson. What was the risk level for the younger girls who had gone to the concert and were talking to you and your team?
A lot of people told us not to film there that day because it was a huge target for a suicide bomber. The young girls that talked there, the main girl that talked was amazing. She’s 15 and she’s more articulate in English than most American girls I would say. She’s just incredible. She’s a future president or politician or something.
I think they’re okay. The film will likely not be shown in Afghanistan for those reasons, because it would endanger a lot of the people that are in it. But I think it’s fine, it’s more when they’re on television nationally in the country that they’re seeing the actresses get death threats and get picked on. They get a lot of hate mail and stuff like that. They get attacked on Facebook. It’s the same with some of the female journalists and presenters. They definitely get targeted and it makes life hard for them.
It’s immeasurably better than it was during the Taliban, and 10 or 11 years ago, but it still has a long way to go.
In the film, we learn that Tolo TV has received a great deal of aid money from foreign countries. We even see that the US Embassy and State Department sponsor some shows, which might give some viewers misgivings. You spend time talking to Muffy (an Australian producer who works at Tolo TV) about the idea of propaganda and the negative gut feeling that we perhaps have about it in other countries. What do you think viewers in more modernized countries can learn from that discussion about propaganda?
That’s something I really wanted to delve into and I think everyone handled it very well. I look at it like this: You can go into a country, you can invade a country and spend half a trillion dollars and the gains that have been made are definitely worthwhile, but there’s been an awful lot of missteps and an awful lot of lives lost and an awful lot of complete mistakes in the way things have been handled. You think about the impact of that money, those lives and that time will have on a country in the long-term, and then you think about a television station that employs 800 people and that had millions and millions of dollars of fin aid pumped into it over the years, and then compare it to the half-a-trillion dollars spent on a military mash and you think about the gains and the impression that’s made on the country, it’s pretty impressive.
So if you think about that as propaganda, I think Muffy says that propaganda has connotations of being a dirty word, but there’s good propaganda and bad propaganda. You have to be very, very, very careful about the lines between the two. But in this case, television has taught people how to count and read. They have Sesame Street, which teaches children how to count and read. They teach people about hygiene, about looking after their children. There’s a lot of medical shows. There’s a lot of cooking shows because a lot of their culture was lost over 30 years of war. They teach them dishes from all over the world, but also teach them how to prepare classic Afghan dishes that a lot of people have forgotten and lost over the war years. And it’s entertainment as well. These people need to have fun and be entertained.
I didn’t see anything that made me bristle, I didn’t see anything that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t see any programming that I thought had messaging that had a deep, dark foreign or ulterior motive. I think Saad expressed it very well when I ask him, “do you think culturally what you have done is good for the people of Afghanistan? Obviously you’ve brought in some ideas from the West, you’ve changed things a little bit.” And he said to really know if we’ve been a success, you have to ask me that in 10 years.
* * *
Talking about the work that the staff of Tolo TV is doing, Orner says that “what they’ve done is quite extraordinary in the face of so much hazard—it’s really breath-taking and country-changing stuff.” The Network is a must-see for those who want to hear positive stories coming out of contrary that is continuously portrayed in a negative light. It’s also a must-see for those folks who have lost all faith in media—those who believe that there’s nothing of value anymore in TV.
The Network premiers at the Vimeo Theater in Austin on Mon. 3/11 at 7 PM. The film will be shown on Weds. 3/13 at 1:30 PM at the Stateside Theatre and on Thurs. 3/14 at 6:45 PM at the Alamo Ritz.