Video Letters from Kabul

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How three young Afghan women filmed their lives with videocams

On the penultimate day of the Mumbai International Film Festival, an audience of mostly students has gathered to watch a collection of short films from Afghanistan. It is the last of the ‘Afghan package’, and after the screening, one of the directors, a 24-year-old independent filmmaker who also works as an editor for TV shows, volunteers to field questions.

The young director, Syed Jalal Hussaini, tries to speak about a range of issues, from the state of independent cinema to how the films showcased were made. But the questions invariably veer towards Kabul and the war in Afghanistan. Hussaini says that most of the attacks and bomb blasts one hears of occur in other parts of the country, and not so much in Kabul. But the queries persist. “Is it like Kashmir?” asks one, “Is Kabul worse than Kashmir?”

It is then, somewhere in the front row of the dark auditorium, that a young female voice arises: “It is like any other city, you know. It is like Mumbai, for instance.” The speaker, a teenager later identified as Nargis Azaryun, gets up from her chair. Two other young girls sitting beside her, Sadaf and Sahar Fetrat, follow suit. And the three join Hussaini to face the audience and help him respond to questions.

Nargis is 19 years old, Sadaf is 20, and Sahar, 16. Residents of the Afghan capital, they are part of a unique project called Kabul Cards, under the aegis of which they use their lives as a means to tell the stories of women in their country. So, for much of last year, the three girls have been going about shooting their day-to-day existence with their tiny Flip cameras—which are no bigger than regular point-and-shoot cameras and Cisco has long stopped selling. On most days, they get by just fine. But sometimes they are told not to shoot. And very often, women who have happily appeared on camera to share their views have called up the following day to ask for their clips to be deleted. Yet, so far, the three have made nine mini-documentaries, apart from a longer video that was shown in Mumbai. All of these have been put up as ‘video letters’ on the internet.

Such documentation is rather rare, given how conservative Afghan society is, according to Anders Sømme Hammer, a Norwegian journalist who is one of the two main movers of this project. He has been living in Kabul for the past five years, writing for various newspapers and making documentaries for TV, apart from writing a book about his experiences as a war correspondent in the country. “It is difficult, if not impossible, to do stories on Afghan women,” he says, “I, for instance, can’t think of how I would have done this project—follow and film women as they go about their lives. If I had tried doing it [myself], within minutes, a policeman or some other individual would have appeared and stopped me. The only way of doing such a project was by getting the women themselves to tell their stories.”

The project began to take shape early last year, when Hammer was looking for local youngsters to write about Afghanistan on his blog. That is how he came across Nargis, who had written a 14 page-long piece about her life to show her keenness for the project. He later got in touch with the Norwegian documentary filmmaker Christoffer Næss, whose own initiative Global Video Letters had given him experience in teaching underprivileged youngsters in places like Brazil and India how to produce ‘video letters’ with handheld cameras. Hammer looked for other candidates in Afghanistan, and held a week-long workshop last June to train eight boys and girls in the art. Once the workshop was over, Nargis, Sadaf and Sahar volunteered to go ahead with the project.

The effort has yielded an interesting portrait of young women in Kabul. Their lives appear upclose and vivid, thanks to the intimacy of the camera’s everyday presence, be it the girls eating chocolate donuts without knowing what these are called, asking a shy teenage boy whether his parents would permit him to speak on camera, or travelling on a dark road full of troops after a bomb blast.

“Much of what is reported about Afghanistan is war and strife,” says Sadaf, who is pursuing music at Kabul University, “All that is true, but there is also a rich civilian life here. One of our main aims was to show that.”

But it is not quite so easy. In one of the videos, some men titter while watching a street demonstration against harassment of women. “What is the point of all this?” demands one man. In another, a man yells at the girls at a shopping mall, asking them to stop filming him. “They are annoyed to see a woman without fear approaching them with a camera,” says Nargis of that episode.

The girls say they sometimes take a male family member along to places they fear are unsafe for young women speaking on or using a video camera. As mentioned earlier, women who have happily agreed to be filmed pull out at the last minute or ask for the footage featuring them to be erased. This is either because they have been warned against it or realise the trouble that appearing in a film could cause. This, mind you, is a country where a strict interpretation of Islam places general strictures on the use of images and particular restrictions on public displays of the female form. Some subjects, which Hammer and the girls do not even want mentioned, are entirely barred from the project, since it could put them in harm’s way.

Nargis is deeply disturbed by recent news of actresses being attacked in Kabul for appearing on TV. Less than two months ago, six men surrounded three actresses—Areza and Tamana and their friend Benafsha—close to their house, and stabbed them. One bled to death outside a mosque. Another actress, among Kabul’s most prominent, Sahar Parniyan, is currently in hiding after receiving death threats. “It is extremely scary because many believe a woman appearing on camera is un-Islamic,” says Nargis, “And, nowadays, instances of acid attacks against women have also increased sharply. We hope we can contribute to changing such a mindset.”

It demands courage. Nargis says they have only just started to roam around openly in Kabul without hijab, something they have never done before.

According to Sadaf, one of the reasons they have not landed in trouble is that they know when to shoot and when to put their cameras away. Nargis and she were once caught in a place far off from their homes when a bomb went off. They, along with some other women, hid in a building closeby, all of which they filmed, but when they were walking home—since vehicles were too afraid to ply the road—the two made sure they had stones instead of cameras in their hands. It was the prudent thing to do.

Another time, the girls were attending a music concert when they heard a bomb go off somewhere close. The three chose to leave right away, even though the concert continued. “In Afghanistan,” remarks Nargis, “just one bomb is not enough to disrupt a concert.”