'My Afghanistan' Director Nagieb Khaja On Giving Civilians A Voice

Featured Stories - on June 19, 2013 by Hillary Eschenburg

myafghpic.jpgDirector Nagieb Khaja's gripping new documentary My Afghanistan gives viewers a glimpse into the rarely seen daily life of Afghan civilians. After years of frustration over how the war in Afghanistan is portrayed by Western journalists, Nagieb Khaja, who grew up in Europe but is of Afghan origins, set off to capture life among civilians in rural Afghanistan. Equipping Afghans with mobile phones, he asked them to simply film everyday life. The result reveals the shocking realities of a life lived surrounded by war. 

The film introduces viewers to Shukrullah, who is forced to make the dangerous commute to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, to continue his education after his school is bombed. Hakl Sahab shows us the home and fertile farmland he and his family were forced to abandon when fighting came too close. Nargis, a widow, gives us one of few glimpses of women in the film, and decides to stop filming over concerns for her and her children's safety.

My Afghanistan captures glimpses of hope, humor, and the indomitable spirit that sustains Afghans during the constant threat of violence and instability. Undeniably, the most jarring image comes from Nagieb's visit to a hospital in Lashkar Gah, capturing first-hand the brutality of war. Inside the hospital are two small boys, both with severe, permanent injuries after their homes are caught in the crossfire of fighting. One of the boys--who lost nearly every member of his family--is covered in burns. It is an image that will linger in the minds of many viewers long after the film ends. It is a reminder that civilians are paying the ultimate price.

My Afghanistan is part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center. The Festival runs through June 23. 

We recently caught up with Khaja via Skype to discuss his film. 

I'll start with a little bit of your background. You were born and raised in Europe. Your parents migrated here [from Afghanistan] before the war. So, what was it like for you growing up in Europe having to watch the country of your origins be torn apart by war?

It was actually a strange experience because even though I grew up here, I was of course aware of the situation there and also followed it through my family. As a kid I watched the news of course, and they called back home and got updated from family members and friends about the situation. In some way it's always been normal for me to get information about it, and conflict has been, I'm sorry to say, a very normal situation in Afghanistan. The peaceful period in the country was before I was born. And the first time the Afghans had peace during my life was in the mid-1990s, and that was when the Taliban controlled the country. It was actually a peaceful period of time, but of course there were other problems then. You read news about the war and conflict, but at the same time you have parents telling you about the peaceful times. People always think of Afghanistan and they think of war, but actually from 1921 until 1979 it was a peaceful country without wars. It was a very long time in the history of the country where it as peaceful. I was told about peaceful periods, but I experienced through the media the periods of conflict.

Right. But your parents were able to experience a much different period of time when it was peaceful.

Yeah, they were so lucky to get out of the country before the Soviet invasion. So, like me, they have experienced the conflicts in Afghanistan through the media and through friends and relatives. But of course, I had other relatives coming to Europe and the United States who had experienced the conflict.

I went to your website and noticed that prior to making the film you were a journalist in Afghanistan, and you talked a little bit about that, so how did that influence your decision to make this film?

It was the reason for deciding to make the film. It was actually because of my experience as a journalist. I couldn't connect my experiences in Afghanistan with what I was told about the Afghans and about the conflict in the country. So I was provoked by way of the coverage from the Western media, and also Afghan media. The problem with the coverage was that you only saw one part of the country. They cover the war from the cities, peaceful areas, and of progress. At the same time the rural areas, you never hear about these areas. When you do see these rural areas being portrayed it is always from the soldiers' perspectives, the military perspective. You see these areas as desolate, without human beings, and if there are human beings they are seen as suspicious, serious persons with turbans and long beards, women in burqas, and are considered almost like an enemy. So I had a big problem with the coverage, and I thought there was a gap between the evaluations of Afghanistan.

From 2002 until 2006 everyone forgot Afghanistan, until Iraq was no longer on the radar, and in these years the insurgents got strong again. I don't think the mainstream media managed to tell why they got strong again, and this story has not been told in 99% of Western media. It was because us, the West, was allying with the warlords, and American Special Forces were not respecting ethnic customs and norms, and creating enemies where Afghans were actually ready to give the new government a chance.

I think the consequences for the civilians were in the aftermath of the evaluation. We thought the war was over, but we didn't see the consequences. We didn't see, for example, the consequences of aerial bombardments. The only thing we heard about was the Taliban or other insurgents making suicide bomb attacks, and we heard about them killing people who were accused of working for the enemy, but we didn't hear about the consequences for the rural population who lives in areas where the Taliban live. So, I think it was a big problem for us in the West to not understand why the rural populations were so against the foreign presence.

I think it's really important that you were able to capture that other perspective because it really isn't covered. And I feel like a lot of Westerners still don't really understand a lot about Afghan society and culture, so for you to be able to capture that, and just to see everyday life and what people are struggling with, and how they're living in fear for their lives on a daily basis, that's really important for Westerners to see.

Yeah, I think it's extremely important because we hadn't had very severe wars that we were engaged with, but then suddenly we had the war in Afghanistan with the presence of ground troops, and afterwards it was Iraq, and we didn't understand the consequences of an invasion, and what a war really is. It's not just pushing a button. You have a civilian population living amongst this war, and it's like we almost forgot that. This is the whole reason why I made the film, was to remind you that-and this is going to sound like a cliché-but there actually are human beings down there and they have the same hopes, the same wishes and dreams, and even the same problems as we have. Of course there are cultural differences, and so on, but basically they're like us. And I think it's really important for us to be reminded of this.

Absolutely. Is that why you chose Helmand Province, to capture the rural life as opposed to urban life?

Partly it was because I had a good network in the area, and secondly it was because, like you said, I wanted to show a rural area and an area of conflict. My problem was that there has been a lot of focus to show all the positive things and the peaceful areas in Afghanistan, and the people who benefitted from the foreign presence. I wanted to show the people who hadn't benefited, the people who were actually paying the price.

I want to talk a little about women. It was apparent that you had a very difficult time trying to film them or get them to participate in your project just because it was a risk for their lives and was dangerous. Given the challenges of filming women, do you feel like you were able to capture what you wanted or are there things you missed that you wish could have been included?

I'm happy that I captured glimpses of their lives, fragments of their lives. The movie is, obviously, based on fragments, but for the women's case it is more fragmented than for the men. I think that I got something out of it, but of course I would have loved to have gotten more. The women are not as big a part of the film as the men, and it was because of circumstances, because it was too difficult. With the women you have a kind of double-sided problem. First of all, it is a very conservative area, and under any circumstances it would be difficult to participate, even if there were no war. Secondly, you have a war, and because there is a war, people get accused of collaborating and working for the enemy. And like my co-partner, Stanikzai, he said it is even a problem for him to walk down the street with me in the street, especially with this blonde photographer, because it can have consequences. So for a man who is a journalist, it is still a problem. But for a woman, it is a bigger problem, because she has already crossed one boundary with this project because what she is doing is not a normal thing women to do. So it becomes easier for people to accuse her of something bad, and it becomes much more difficult for her to defend herself because she had already crossed one boundary. I would love to have more material, and of course had more material than you see in the film, but I had to use what I thought was important and essential. But it was because of the obstacles that I could not get more women.

Right. I think that in the West we want to believe that rights for women in Afghanistan have gotten a lot better, and I think in a lot of ways it has, but when I see the footage in Helmand province it seems like life is still very difficult for women and there are still a lot of obstacles that women face. Do you think a lot has changed?

It has changed for some groups of women, especially women in the cities, and of course from educated families, or women from middle class and upper class families. For a lot of poor women in the cities and women in rural areas it is a lot of minor issues that have changed. In a lot of places, almost nothing has changed. And I think what the film shows is that the depiction of women is not only because of the Taliban, it is also because of the differences in values within large parts of the country, which has nothing to do with the war or the Taliban. The norms that you see in the film were norms that were there before the Taliban came, were there while the Taliban ruled and also afterwards. So I think that also nuances the picture of the situation of the women.

You've touched on this a little bit already, but it's pretty clear throughout the film that this project is risky not only for you but the people that you are working with. What compelled you to keep making the film despite the risks?

I know there are sequences that show some risks, but actually, compared to some of the other things I've done, I don't think it was as risky. But still, in general, the things that I work with are risky, but I do it because I think it is important. One of the reasons I went into journalism was to try to change the pages that I don't agree with. I grew up in a home where my father always told me be to be critical of what I was told by politicians, and sometimes of the press. I think it's one of the things that drives me to be a journalist, what my father told me about the stereotypical coverage of certain topics or of certain groups, and that can also be here in Denmark. I think it's important that some people try to go against some of the things we get bombarded with. I see my role as somebody who is filling in some of the gaps in the press. So, it's been important in my work to do the things that others don't do, to go to the places where other people don't go, because somebody has to do it. So it's basically a drive that I have, and this is the reason I went in to journalism.

And you're definitely able to capture stories and images that we don't hear about. So you're definitely meeting a need by doing that... The people that you give cameras to, you ask them to talk about their hopes and their dreams. What's your hope for the future of Afghanistan?

I'm convinced that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, so I hope that the local actors in the war--the government, the Taliban, the other groups--I hope that they can sit together and talk about their issues. I know that it's also dependent on the neighboring countries because they are also fueling the conflict. Pakistan is supporting the Taliban, Iran is supporting the government, the Western world is supporting the government, and other regional actors are supporting other groups. So I hope first of all that the Afghans can sort it out, because even the Taliban and the government know that they can't defeat each other.

At the same time, the whole process depends on the international community. I hope that the United Nations will try to play a bigger role. I think the biggest problem with Afghanistan right now is that people think that the United States will solve everything. They couldn't solve it militarily so now they'll solve it by talking to them. It's not possible for a party to be a player, to engage in a war, and afterwards also to solve the conflict. They need a mediator. So I think that the United Nations should step in and try to involve some influential countries who haven't been a part of Isaf [International Security Assistance Force], the forces that fight the insurgents, and try to use them as mediators so we can resolve the conflict. But the conflict isn't going to be resolved then. The Taliban and the corrupt Afghan government are going to be the winners and the civic society is going to be the losers.

So, I think it's going to be very complicated, and unfortunately I'm a bit pessimistic because I don't think the international community is focusing enough on the right solutions. I hope that they are because there are glimpses of hope in Afghanistan.


Tags: My Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch Film Festival