Human Rights Film Festival New York 2013: ‘My Afghanistan’ & ‘Rafea’

[20 June 2013]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

I'd Rather Go to School

“There is a lot of gunfire in this direction.” Shukrullah lies on the floor of his home in Saidabad, a village in the Nad Ali district of Afghanistan. As he’s listening to gunfire, the 19-year-old has positioned the camera at an angle, just above his face, which remains taut and resolute as he describes what’s happening. “I don’t know how it will all end,” he says.

Filming himself for Danish/Afghan filmmaker Nagieb Khaja’s documentary My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone (Mit Afghanistan: Livet i den forbudte zone), Shukrullah also regularly gathers his younger siblings around him, covering their ears and looking up at him, as he reminds them they’ll be having supper soon, not quite distracting them from the sounds of war. In between raids by the Taliban and “operations” by British forces, the young man makes the dangerous journey by bicycle to a nearby university, because, says the aspiring journalist, “My studies are important.”

Shukrullah’s experience—at once so fraught and so determined—is one of several comprising Khaja’s extraordinary documentary, screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York. As the film begins, Khaja hands out cameras and offers brief instructions on how to use them (“Remember to speak from your heart”). The new makers’ work, 40-year-old farmer and recent widower Abdul Muhammed’s long, somber views of his fields, 20-year-old construction worker Jama Gul’s ruminations on the value of hair styling (“The people of Afghanistan are not really used to styling their hair,” he smiles, exhibiting his own efforts by use of a mirror, “They comb it once or twice a day”), and Haji Sahib’s celebration of his 70-year-old jeep, which he drives over all sorts of terrain with a kind of courageous, madcap certainty (that the vehicle ends up in a ditch seems inevitable, as does the fact that a neighbor with a tractor hauls it out and Haji is again on his way).

Khaja’s resolve to make a film of ordinary people’s lives, to show how civilians survive day to day in a nation at war, faces occasional, predictable impediments. It’s hard to find a woman subject, though 45-year-old Nargis, a Chaanjeer health clinic worker with no husband and “some kids,” agrees to try. “Do you think it’s possible for a woman to film in the street?” he asks, the back of his head forming a frame for her close-up. “No,” she shakes her head, “Not even inside a shop. In a crowd, it might be possible, but in the street, it is not possible.” This even as she’s handed him three memory cards of footage she’s taken, exuberant images of children dancing, laughing, and playing games. Her lively eyes visible from behind her veil, she listens patiently as Khaja asks, “Would you like to help us to reveal the problems and views faced by the women of Helmand to the world?” Here the film cuts to a longer shot, so that you can see a little girl on the chair beside her, squirming with energy.

However you might imagine this child’s future, Nargis has ideas about her own: “That will never happen,” she says, “No matter how hard we try.” Here the scene cuts away, as Khaja and his local contact, a Lashkar Gah journalist Stanikzai, discuss the risks Nargis faces when she films. Stanikzai makes the case by underlining his own risk. When he’s spotted with Khaja and his camera operator, Henrik Ipsen, he says, “Even that is dangerous.” (Later in the film, they contemplate whether Henrik should dye his hair “for safety reasons,” but decide “They’d recognize him anyway.”)

The men agree they don’t want Nargis to “get in trouble, so we’ll stop employing her now,” and begin work with another aspiring journalist 15-year-old Fereshteh, who records her tiny room and the computer she uses, when her parents’ home has power, infrequently. She takes her camera out into a field to interview a small girl, Laila, working as a shepherd. Fereshteh asks if she likes her work. “I’d rather go to school,” she says, leaning on her shepherd’s staff, the ground stretching desolate and gray behind her. “But my dad won’t let me.” Even so, Laila asserts, smiling, “It’s better being an engineer or a teacher.” So, Fereshteh concludes, it’s better to go to school.

The camera cuts back to Khaja, watching this scene on his laptop, and then another, as Fereshteh shows herself watching a TV show on a tiny pink netbook, a show that “discusses women’s issues.” She’s set up her camera above the floor, so she looks up, her face veiled, her pink machine beside her. That she’s found the show, that she knows a world beyond exists, seems hopeful. But when Khaja visits Fereshteh to ask whether she might provide more images of her family, or conversations with her sister or mother, she informs him that she cannot. “They say, ‘You are taking part in this film, and that is enough.’” Her father sits across the room, watching carefully as she speaks and also as she listens to Khaja, who laments, “If you make a documentary featuring ninety-nine percent men, it cannot tell the real story of Afghanistan.” She adjusts her hijab to cover her face more securely.

My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone (2012)

My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone (2012)

Fereshteh’s story, however briefly or barely it appears here, is surely real, complicating what you might discern from My Afghanistan, leaving you to wonder whose Afghanistan it can possibly show. In showcasing its own inaccuracies and difficulties, the film helps you to imagine multiple other trajectories, the ever vulnerable lives of ordinary people that remain invisible. When, for a few minutes, Khaja loses contact with Shukrulla and fears the worst, the film makes vivid the perils that shape so many lives in Helmand province. But still, the film’s subjects express themselves, make art out of their desperate surroundings, insist on their own value.

The will to self-expression is at the center of another film at the Festival, Rafea: Solar Mama. Here too, as the titular subject, Rafea Anad, wonders about her future, she keeps hold of her present, embodied by her four daughters, aged 13 to three. The girls “mean to the world to me,” she asserts, which means that she worries for them too. “I have had a fifth grade education. A girl is not supposed to continue school past 10, because it’s shameful.” A couple of her daughters watch her work at the start of Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim’s documentary. They live in a tent in Jordan, and here she performs daily chores, sweeping, doing laundry, preparing food and gathering together scraps of cupboards to build a fire. “I would love to have a career and succeed,” Rafea says, “to help all the women in the village who are in the same situation.”

And so Rafea makes a most difficult decision, to leave Jordan and go away to entrepreneur Bunker Roy’s Barefoot College in India. “I tell her that I can see it in her eyes,” he says when he recruits Rafea, “that in six months, she will become the best engineer in Jordan.” Proud of his own work—“It’s the only program in the world where an illiterate woman can become an engineer”—Roy hopes to allay Rafea’s initial reluctance to go, as she worries especially over leaving her children behind for nearly six months.

The film reveals some background for her concerns, as her husband Aliyan, has his own fears. He keeps another family in another tent (“I am number two,” Rafea says), and a change in Rafea’s fortunes would mean a change in his own. Told this might be change for the good—Rafea’s girls would have a house, with bedrooms for each—he’s set in his fears. His wife’s education and a livelihood might affect his routine, the life he’s grown up expecting to have. “He kills my spirit,” Rafea reports, “I don’t have a problem, my husband is the problem.” Before the camera, Aliyan appears a gentle man, his complaints uttered quietly. But still, even as he’s intrigued by the promise of an improved income for his own household (they’ll have a house, and the children might have their own rooms), the very idea of a woman feeling independent, making decisions for herself, is unnerving.

Once Rafea agrees to go, life at school is also unsettling. She can speak with the girls by phone, but when she hears that one is sick, she determines to go home immediately. This panic passes, and she resolves to complete her term’s worth of classes. Nervous about an upcoming test of one of her projects she ponders the possibility of failure, sharing her feelings with a friend. They sigh, “No one is satisfied with their life,” but knowing this doesn’t stop them from deciding to move forward, to pursue some satisfaction in a way they haven’t imagined before.

If Solar Mamas makes an argument beyond the obvious one—education is good, for everyone—it’s that overcoming fears is part of that process. Change is built into schooling, and as Rafea sees herself and her world from a new perspective, she’s able to translate that new view for her friends back home, her husband, and her daughters. “Men and women are created equal,” she learns at school. “No difference between them, tell your husband you want to work.” If his initial assent is based on self-interest—that house—it is yet a step forward.

This and other steps appear on screen, the camera quietly observing in the classroom or in Rafea’s work to construct a means to solar power back in Jordan. Rafea works together with her fellow students, earns commendations from her teachers, and impresses her family back home. As she steps into a world she hasn’t yet imagined, she embodies both hope and risk. Leaving her family behind, however temporarily, is traumatic, as are her husband’s fear and disapproval. Still, she presses forward. In her classes, learning to develop solar power for her community, Rafea’s enthusiasm and talents help her to stand out, but at the same time, she sees herself as representative more than exceptional. “We can change this village,” she says, “We can change this life.”

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