Exploring issues of documentary capacity building and public engagement through a media arts lens
Featuring Afghanistan-based filmmaker and former CSFilm Coordinator Jamal Aram, CSFilm founder and director Michael Sheridan, and moderator Helen De Michiel, filmmaker and former National Director of NAMAC. See full bios
Watch the conversation video, or listen to the mp3 audio.
Learn about Community Supported FIlm’s work to go beyond traditional notions of participatory media in its training of local storytellers in documentary filmmaking. This lively discussion covers sustainable approaches to community-based storytelling, the philosophy and practicalities of multinational storytelling, and the curricular models and tools that go into produce such stunning and moving films.
Media in Afghanistan
Jamal: …Back in 2010, after the fall of the Taliban, the media already started opening up. It took us almost ten years to get TV channels established here. People were interested to watch TV, but all the productions came from outside Afghanistan, like the Indian films and the American films, and the notion of the documentary was almost non-existent.
Michael: Documentary itself is so unknown. People don’t understand the idea that you actually don’t have a script and actors and actresses. At many of the screenings people referred to the [characters] as actors and actresses and sometimes challenged the filmmakers quite aggressively about ‘why would they tell these women to do these things’? ‘Isn’t that negative?’ ‘Why would you want to share these kinds of challenges…?’
Jamal: In the past when people talked about violence against women some people said, ‘you talk about violence against women throughout the country, but show me an example – one single example.’ And there was not a single example, because there were no mediums [with which to share] those cases. But right now with the media coming in, especially with filmmaking, documentary filmmaking and radio, the numbers of [acts of] violence against women are coming to the surface very dramatically. And sometimes it really scares us … But I think that’s a good thing because media and filmmaking is doing their job. They’re helping these stories to come to the surface and people should know about it and the law enforcement organizations should start really taking it seriously and act on it.
Role of CSFilm and The Fruit of Our Labor Films
Jamal: [CSFilm invited] people from across the county, from different provinces throughout the country, to come together. Because that is the idea: when they are trained they should go back to their communities and tell the untold stories, which we see some of them doing today.
Helen: [In The Fruit of Our Labor] we see patient observation of daily life, which we never get to see [otherwise] and we notice in these films that there’s these open endings – there’s not a pat little three act structure in each one of the films. And there’s also an invitation in each one of those films to the audience to talk more after the film, and to find out more…there seems to be minimal ego or filtration of the filmmaker’s point of view.
… [T]he piece where the women is going around in the village and trying to help people to understand why education is so important, that isn’t only storytelling but it’s story showing, showing a process of interrelationship and how people have to work very hard on a very granular level. And in that ten minutes, or however long that film is, we learn more than probably a million policy documents.
Jamal: Since we do not have role models, it’s inspiring for [Afghans] to see women, as in L is for Light, D is for Darkness, in a very traditional community setting, trying to educate people and trying to establish a school. … This is an inspiration both for the audience and the filmmakers to go out and find such stories and try to promote role models for Afghan women and men. I think that’s an amazing achievement for the film.
Zhara’s film, Hands of Health, talks about contraceptives. That is something that most people in a village just never heard of it. … These are very crucial issues that Afghans should know about, … and this already started a very good conversation inside Afghanistan which is a very huge achievement.
Ethnic diversity, gender and the training
Jamal: There should be something, some common ground, that different ethnicities could come together and sit around a table and really start discussing their feelings and what they think [about] all of these situations. That should be, you know, the ground for building this nation because – and unfortunately when I’m saying this, I’m a little ashamed of saying it – but we are so divided. And this being divided, it creates most of the problems that we are facing both in the economy, social issues and obviously the political issues.
Michael: The dominant subject that kept coming up in the evaluations was what an incredible multicultural experience it was for the trainees. I mean we had three ethnic groups in the same room… we all know what a horrifying history Afghanistan has with ethnic violence. But it’s not until you’re sitting in a room and you have a group of Pashtuns sitting there and then you have a group of Hazaras come in and the whole room goes dead silent and then there’s this very formal [process of] feeling each other out. Well you know that in and of itself was an amazing learning experience for me for about the purpose of the [training]. Well yes, there is this filmmaking agenda and sharing of stories in the west and the opening up of the documentary journalism opportunities within Afghanistan; but just having those ten people having to go out together from different ethnic groups, and having women and men mix and help each other [was so important].
Michael: I mean in many ways a number of these films would have been impossible if there wasn’t that mix. L is for Light, D is for Darkness was made by a man but it’s about a woman’s story. It goes into rooms where there are only women gathered. If Zahra Sadat hadn’t been one of the female trainees,… it couldn’t have happened. The male filmmakers couldn’t have gone into those rooms and filmed those scenes. Zahra had to go in and film those scenes and share in that process.
Afghans’ reaction to the films
Jamal: There were things in the films, like Death to the Camera, where they were talking about politicians. Some of the audience said it’s unacceptable because they are attacking the Jihadi leaders and it should be cut from the film. But I think that’s a good thing about these films. They bring people to really start talking, instead of attacking each other. Rather than fighting it’s engaging people to share their ideas whatever they are. … I think it’s very good to have this conversation going on both inside and outside the country.
How does CSFilm work?
Michael: [CSFilm] is trying to [help] people who are concerned about their own social economic development issues, and who want to use storytelling techniques to effectively share those stories … We were looking for people who were engaged in storytelling: it could be photography, it could be theater, it could be traditional poetry which is very dominant still in Afghanistan, but they had to have a storytelling background.
[We do] what we call back-to-basics, lived-reality documentary filmmaking, so it’s really oriented towards them getting the basic skills to visualize a story, how to do sound and how to tell a story. … One thing that we really emphasize in the training in terms of getting people very quickly to be able to produce very engaging stories, is to lead with the visual and follow with the talk.
We have to step back from the notion that we [Americans] can do it, that we can fix it, that we can solve Afghanistan’s problems in both our storytelling techniques and in our economic and social development assistance. Go to the local knowledge and the empowerment of that local capacity to tell the stories of what’s happening locally. Because there’s a lot of good work being done by Afghans. It’s not getting the attention that it really needs, and it needs long-term support.
Long-term impact on trainees
Michael: In terms of our evaluation of impact, from the local perspective, I look at the trainees and what they have gone on to do. Most of them have, or all of them have, either gotten employment or have gone on, in the important ways that I am interested in, to integrating visual storytelling into their work, whether as a press journalist or working for a rights organization, as one has gone on to do.
Jamal: [Regarding the trainees now], most of them or all of them are employed in TV or doing independent filmmaking, or some of them are thinking of doing some kind of training like they received at CSFilm in their provinces and enabling more people to do it.
Jamal Aram, Filmmaker and Afghan Program Coordinator, Community Supported Film. Mr. Aram was born in Kabul and went to elementary and high school during the civil war and Taliban regime. During his career he has worked as a research assistant and translator at Afghan Public Policy Research Organization, with the Agha Khan Foundation and other development and microfinance institutions.
Michael Sheridan, Director and Founder of Community Supported Film – has worked in Afghanistan over the last 3 years to train and mentor Afghans in documentary filmmaking. The focus of the stories and the collection of short films produced, The Fruit of Our Labor, is on local economic and social development issues.
Helen De Michiel, director, writer and producer whose current project, Lunch Love Community, is a multiplatform documentary that explores food system reform by Berkeley parents. From 1996 – 2010 Helen was the National Director and Co-Director for NAMAC, The National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture.