The Anthropology of the Contemporary Middle East and Central Eurasia, or ACME Journal reviewed CSFilm’s The Fruit of Our Labor: Afghan Perspectives in Film in their last issue. Below you can read an excerpt from the review:
Rather than being a single, comprehensive film, this production comprises ten separate short documentaries, each filmed by a different Afghani trained by Community Supported Film. They range in length from 6 to 20 minutes and focus on Afghani citizens going about their everyday affairs. They ‘bring to life Afghans’ efforts to address their challenging social and economic conditions’, in the words of an accompanying brochure. These slice-of-life vignettes accomplish this goal and give some insight into the problems facing poor and working class Afghanis as they go about their daily routines. Most of the subjects are women, although six of the filmmakers are men. The subject of the war rarely comes up, but it is still a presence in several of the pieces.
‘L’ is for Light, ‘D’ is for Darkness (dir. Hasibullah Asmati, ed. Hamed Alizada, 12 mns) tracks a female teacher in a remote village as she goes house to house trying to persuade villagers to send their daughters to a newly established school in the wake of the Taliban’s departure. She wears a burqa that she takes off at some houses and at others leaves in place. She is welcomed at most houses, at others she is given excuses (‘her brother will not allow her to go to school’) and at one there is no answer at all to her persistent knocking. The local mulla supports the school, but has no power to compel the girls to attend. A final scene shows the school operating in a damaged building with no roof. Searching for a Path (dir. Reza Sahel, ed. Rahmatullah Jafari, 13 mns) focuses on a pushcart vendor in Kabul. A young man who peddles bananas from a wheelbarrow narrates this piece, explaining how he had tried other jobs, but could not make enough money. As he wheels his car through the streets of Kabul he talks about harassment by the police, his wedding debts, his hopes for his children (that they become doctors), and his aspiration to open a small shop. It is a hard life, but the vendor speaks without bitterness, just a sense of hope for something better.
In another remote village, pregnant women have to make a long trip to Kabul for maternity consultations because there is no local maternity clinic. Hands of Health (dir. Zahra Sadat, ed. Jawed Taiman,14 mns) has scenes of women baking bread, men constructing a stone wall and picking fruit, all the while talking about women’s health and the number of children a family should have. They also lament the fact that there are no local medical facilities, but even after the villagers have built a small clinic, the national government has not staffed or equipped it, leaving the women no better off than before.
Heroin addiction is a serious problem in Afghanistan. In The Road Above (dir. Aqeela Rezai, ed. Jawed Taiman, 6 mns) a woman named Mona is shown doing heavy manual labor (puddling concrete, shoveling gravel etc. for the construction of a road). Her husband is an addict and she has not seen him for months, thus she is forced to work to support herself and her family. Accompanied by a policeman, she goes searching for her husband at a site under a highway, where addicts congregate to shoot up. She has no luck in her quest, and concludes that he is probably dead and that it is better that way, as he was already lost.
Knocking on Time’s Door (also known as Opening the Door of Time, dir. Ahmad Wahid Zaman, ed. Hamed Alizada, 6 mns) profiles a former mujahidin fighter who has come back to his village and become a teacher. The former warrior is shown discussing with two comrades their time fighting the Taliban; then there are scenes of the construction of a school, followed by shots of students and teachers in the school and classroom. A vision of hope is projected, as the aging teacher plays volleyball with some young pupils.
Bearing the Weight (dir. Mona Haidari, ed. Hamid Arshia, 13 mns) also references the war, in that the protagonist, Shafiqa, lost her husband, newborn daughter and her leg in a rocket attack. But this is a story of redemption, as Shafiqa has been able to care for herself, her two sons and be a vital member of her community. She is shown teaching other disabled women how to sew and make garments. There is testimony about how she was inspired by other disabled women who strived to overcome their injuries and scenes of her counselling others. Nevertheless, things are difficult for the disabled in Afghanistan; Shafiqa remains very poor and suffers discrimination, not even able to hail a taxi. The piece ends with Shafiqa stating her ambitions for her two remaining children – to become educated and get a university degree.
Water is essential to life everywhere, but in parts of Afghanistan there is very little water to be had. Water Ways (dir. Majeed Zarand, ed. Jawed Taiman, 11 mns) chronicles the quest for water in a rural area of Afghanistan, where government programmes have helped some farmers tap the water-table dozens of meters below the surface, while other farmers are forced to rely on undependable rains and occasional good luck. Much of the farming is still done without the benefit of tractors or other modern technology. The film ends with scenes of a minor construction project financed by the government’s National Solidarity Programme. Afghanis are doing all they can to survive under difficult circumstances. Life is hardest for the poor. Beyond Fatigue (dir. Baqir Tawakoli, ed. Hamid Arshia, 9 mns) follows a woman who, in one day, visits her sick mother-in-law in a distant village, teaches small children at a mosque school, and works at a vocational training center operating a foot-treadle sewing machine. All this time she is accompanied by her young child for whom she cannot afford day care. Her dream is to get a loan that would enable her to buy her own sewing machine.
Treasure Trove (dir. Fakhria Ibrahimi, ed. Rahmatullah Jafari, 11 mns) is set in a very rustic bakery, where the women who operate it are showing splitting wood for the oven fires, kneading the dough, and baking the loaves in a tandoor. These are very poor women, who converse in a lively fashion amongst themselves and with other women who come to buy bread. The banter is often sexual in nature, and none of the women are veiled. It is a rare behind-the-scenes view of Afghan women at ease among themselves.
The final film, Death to the Camera (dir. Sayed Qasem Hossaini, ed. Hamed Alizada, 20 mns) is set at a work site where women, supervised by men, are making The Fruit of Our Labor: Afghan Perspectives in Film 195 some kind of mud bricks. A few are wearing burqas, others not. Some of the women are interviewed and the film captures their responses, which reveal the tensions that define their situation. None of the women are very happy; it is hard, dirty work that some find shameful. They state that they are just ‘trying to make a living’. ‘Ignore our shame,’ says one. They complain about hiring practices (women from certain ethnic groups are hired last or not at all), the government of Hamid Karzai, unpaid wages and the like. Their comments are not without some humor, but it is a dark humor that reinforces the unfortunate plight of these marginalized women.
The mission of Community Supported Film is to produce films that show ‘realities often unrepresented in the media’ to ‘influence local and international perspectives on sustainable solutions for a more peaceful and equitable world’. The Fruit of Our Labor does a good job of conveying the plight of everyday Afghani citizens struggling to make ends meet in a very challenging environment. Thus, it fulfills the first part of the mission. Whether it can exert any influence depends on whether it is seen by those with the power to effect the changes needed to improve such people’s lives. Probably not. But it can be seen by students who may eventually be in positions to find solutions to the world’s problems, and thus it should be used in the classroom. It can educate students about the plight of women and the poor in countries like Afghanistan and can help them see where improvements can be made.
Peter S. Allen
Rhode Island College