(photo credit: Reuters/Jorge Silva)
I started the documentary project My Afghanistan out of frustration with the
stereotyped, simplistic coverage the conflict in that war-torn country was
receiving. As a journalist, I had covered Afghanistan before, and almost every
time I returned from an assignment there I saw pictures and stories of an
Afghanistan I did not recognize.
On the one hand, the war was being
covered from the peaceful areas in the bigger cities, in fact almost exclusively
from the capital, Kabul. We saw pictures of progress, hairdressers, middle-class
Afghans enjoying coffees and food in new restaurants. There was no war in Kabul
– there were unfortunately suicide bombers, etc., but there were no military
offensives, with tanks attacking neighborhoods or planes bombing
On the other hand, we saw rural Afghanistan from within the
ranks of Western militaries, through the eyes of journalists and filmmakers
embedded with the military. However, the problem was that when a journalist or
filmmaker is embedded with Western military forces it becomes almost impossible
to get in touch with the local inhabitants, who are afraid of being perceived as
affiliated with one of the warring parties, or accused of assisting either
party, which could get them killed.
I decided I wanted to tell the story
of the numbers, statistics and obscure figures we never hear about from the
embedded journalists, as well as of the faces and background
EASY TO say, not easy to accomplish.
Because of the risk
of getting kidnapped or wounded in these areas, where insurgents are very
strong, it was impossible to stay in one area for a prolonged period, not to
mention the fact that for a film crew to stay in a local home would also
constitute a serious risk for the hosts, for the reasons given above. So a film
crew was out, and I started considering the possibility of have the locals
themselves get the footage.
My reasoning was that people could not walk
around with video cameras, because these are unusual in the rural areas, so I
decided to equip them with video-capable mobile phones, which are a very common
sight even in rural Afghanistan. I then asked them to film themselves and tell
the stories of their love ones, their problems, hopes and dreams. I wanted to
let Western audiences get to know these people that you normally see from a
The point was to give them a voice so we could learn about
their lives, and about how they had been affected by living in a war
I trained the contributors, teaching them how to hold the camera,
various methods of filming and storytelling techniques – but I never told them
what story to tell. I emphasized that I wanted to portray “their Afghanistan.”
Basically, I told them to tell the stories that were important to them. Then I
sent them out and waited.
Sometimes they disappeared for days, other
times for weeks, and because there were no phone connection in some of the areas
I did not know whether something bad had happened to them. Of course there was
no Internet connection in their rural villages so I needed to wait for them to
get back to me and hand over the memory cards. Everything worked in a very
manual, old-fashioned way.
Eventually I ended up with a truckload of
footage. I had no clue what was in the memory cards, and everything was in a
language I did not understand. It was uphill from beginning to end.
REALLY surprised me when I dug into the footage was that most of the pictures
were not about war but ordinary life. A lot of the footage was of happy children
playing, people enjoying their green fields, swimming in the rivers and
basically just trying to get the best out of their lives.
It amazed me
that human beings were so good at coping, adapting and living their lives like
there was no war in their back yard.
Of course, I also received footage
that did document the cruel side of the conflict, which wounded people
physically and mentally. But my characters did not specifically set out to film
the war; when they captured violent footage it was because the war came to
The war in Afghanistan has had very severe consequences for the
civilians in rural Afghanistan where the media are not present. There are far
more victims there of aerial bombardments, warlords, etc. I hope my film will
show outsiders a glimpse of both the bad and good parts of everyday life in
Afghanistan that we normally are not able to see. When people watch my movie
they are surprised at the humor and joy on display, and in general can identify
with the people living in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
While this is a
good thing as far as my mission goes, it casts a very disturbing light on how
the media work with stereotypes which serve to dehumanize people, especially in
the context of war. It sounds like a cliché, but my film is actually about
reminding the rest of the world that Afghans are human beings like
The writer is the director of the newly released documentary
My Afghanistan that will be screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival.