he three pretty young things stood smiling, mirroring the expression of the small gathering at Studio Safdar. These girls, barely out of their teens, appeared like preparing to deliver a routine classroom presentation. What one sees and hears next, instead, is an effusive sketch of Afghanistan and the lives of young women like themselves in the war-ravaged country they call home.
Recently in town to showcase their film, Kabul Cards, the trio–Nargis Azaryun (19) and Fetrat sisters Sahar (16) and Sadaf (20)–speak about their homeland with the zeal of neo-converts. As they abandon their initial restraint to speak with increasing animation about their love for Afghanistan, it gets a little disorienting for one who grew up in India, where pretty much everything is taken for granted. "Afghanistan," says Azaryun, a law student who also works in an organisation dealing with development, "is not just about bombs, burqas and bearded fanatics. We have a vibrant social and cultural life and through this film, we wish to dispel the misguided notions that the international media has created about our country."
The 17-minute long film, which is part of a larger project due for completion in 2013, was the brainchild of Norwegian journalist Anders Sømme Hammer, who has been living and working in Afghanistan for the past five years. "I wanted to document the lives of ordinary Afghans, without the filters of Western understanding. Rather than speaking on their behalf, I wanted them to tell their own stories," he says.
For the project, Hammer roped in the support of filmmaker and compatriot Christoffer Næss of Global Video Letters, an international organisation that works on participatory media projects. After a basic training in filmmaking, the mentor duo asked the girls to go about town armed with mobile phone cameras. They began interacting with Kabul and its residents and this initial film is the result of their experiences in the city," explains Næss.
||Afghanistan is not just about bombs, burqas and bearded fanatics. We have a vibrant social and cultural life and through this film, we wish to dispel the misguided notions that the international media has created about our country.
— Nargis Azaryun
In the film, we see Azaryun and the Fetrat siblings film themselves at their favourite haunts and talk to interesting characters – at home and in the streets. They interview people from across the social spectrum – a boy working in a bakery, an elderly gentleman at an electric repair shop, a cab driver, a poet, small children, boys discussing what it means to be an Afghan and so on. Watching the film, one gets the idea that like any other city, the primary preoccupation of the residents of Kabul is with life, not death. Sahar remarks, "While it is true that whenever we leave home, we know at the back of our minds that this could be our last day, I don't see why such thoughts should stop us from living life fully. Problems exist all over the world and we want people to see the happier side of our country."
During the discussion with a small but eager audience, one realises that there are in fact things about Afghanistan that outsiders are rather ill-informed about. Fetrat points out, "To begin with, Taliban is not Afghanistan. Thirty-forty years ago, women walked around in short skirts and even today, in spite of Taliban, we live our lives away from its shadow. It is not as if we are killing each other every day."
The filmmakers gracefully fielded some rather preposterous questions such as, 'How do you commute?' (Azaryun replied, much to the surprise of the interjector, 'I drive!'). In fact, a key moment in the film shows women protestors staging a march against harassment on streets. This, the trio tells us, is quite a bother. In addition to lewd comments and groping, one faces insolence like, 'Go back to your home' or 'You are disgracing women by being on the streets'. "To be a woman in Afghanistan means you always have to fight. But this country made us the women we are today and we need strong action from like-minded people to become the change we want to see in our country," concluded Fetrat.