Last night, I returned to the San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival to see two more films. The first film I watched was Kabul Transit, a documentary filmed in the Fall 2003 in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Directors Dave Edwards (an anthropologist) and Maliha Zulfacar (sociologist), with photographer Gregory Whitmore sought to create a documentary that allows the viewer to go on a journey in Kabul without a strong narrative or narration. Dave Edwards had lived in Kabul before the fall of Afghanistan to the Russians. The directors speak the languages of Kabul and have connections that allowed them access to the Canadian UN Peacekeepers, Afghani Ministry of Interior, police stations, and Kabul's TV mountain.
The film is very visual and uses regional music and in one part, Russian music to great effect. There are times where the effect is hypnotic. It opens with boys and young men kite fighting on a hill with the kites reaching far out over the city. Then there is TV mountain broadcasting a translated version of George Bush talking about how our nation was harmed and that this will be a long, difficult mission. His image crackles on a small black & white television.
According to Dave Edwards, who stayed over after the film to take questions, they had problems getting access to the American operation in Afghanistan and had to follow the Canadians who were far more at ease at being filmed. The Canadians come off trying to do their best as professional and experienced peacekeepers, who are fighting the red tape to get stuff done. One Canadian officer expresses disappointment at the entire operations lack of concerted effort to change things -- its all piecemeal and very frustrating to him. Canadians take surveys of the Afghanis so they can report back to their own government as to their progress.
When the filmmaker talks to Afghanis they express frustration at the American forces who's paranoia and aggressiveness puts them off and may be partially responsible for Afghanis themselves to lash out.
Director Edwards was asked about why there wasn't more women in the movie. He admitted that out of 150 hours of film, they only got 3 hours with women. They have a scene where women are talking about how the American and UN coalition talks about and tries to do things for women, but their efforts don't really address their real needs and are not lasting or sustainable. They scratch their heads at a program to get them in the pickle industry. There are a couple of other scenes where women were still wearing burkas two years after the fall of the Taliban, and there are areas in Kabul and in the outskirts where women are kept almost exclusively in their homes to prevent being attacked. Edwards says that not having an all female crew kept them from filming more women. Thoughout the film though the absense of women is noticeable and counter to all we heard back home that we were making a difference in Women's lives in Afghanistan.
One of the most remarkable parts of this film was when they visited the Soviet Cultural Center built in the 1980s to be a huge complex with a large theater and where over 600 Afghanis live in its rubble. Scattered throughout the rubble there are discarded and damaged filmstrips from the Soviet era that these refugees would collect. The directors intercut footage of performances at the theater of Russian dancers and of the Soviet parade heading out of Afghanistan with a Russian song about the Black Tulip (which was the name of the airlift that took dead soviet soldiers back home during the conflict with the Mujahidin). You would have footage of a performance at the theater and then to the complex that is just a shell that is barely standing. The transformation of the building is staggering and it makes one gasp.
Another thing we saw is a police station that cannot work their police radios during the day because there is no power and they have no money to keep their generators on. It is clear that what passes for police in Kabul is very unsatisfactory. They are all volunteers and they show up when they want to. Then the film shows where a coalition soldier able to play videogames during the day -- so someone is getting power.
The director told us that the are planning to put this out on DVD and they hope to have an additional disk that would be an interactive map of Kabul so you can click on a neighborhood and experience what they caught on film spacially.
I recommend this film as a snapshot of a capital city caught in the middle of an epic drama existing in rubble with this long rich history. I hope that they can go back and make a sequel of this film to see if anything has been accomplished and if we have learned anything by being there for 5 years.