The Afghanistan we never see

The war in Afghanistan has had much more severe consequences for the civilians in rural Afghanistan where the media are not present.

July 6, 2013 23:24
4 minute read.
Kandahar, Afghanistan

Kandahar, Afghanistan_311. (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 villages.

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 stories.

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 distance.

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 zone.

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.

WHAT 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 them.

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 themselves.

The writer is the director of the newly released documentary My Afghanistan that will be screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Related Content

An aide whispers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Moshe Kahlon in the foreground
August 24, 2019
Moving beyond the politics of fear


Cookie Settings