A half-naked Afghan boy beams laughing into the camera, two crabs held tightly between his fingertips. His brothers and cousins join, falling about in the water, laughing and screaming with joy as they play. The daily lives of Afghan children are captured in a moment of calm, much different from the clinical, military footage which more often than not frames our Western depictions of war-torn Afghanistan.
In Nagieb Khaja’s documentary, My Afghanistan – Life in the Forbidden Zone, the audience is granted a unique exploration into the everyday civilian lives so often marginalised in reports of the Helmand province. Quotidian scenes of family life, dinners of onions, yoghurt and bread, school lessons held outside in the few schools that remain open, and football games amusingly disrupted by wandering sheep are intertwined with the much more ‘typical’, yet equally-quotidian, first-hand realities of shellfire, suicide bombers, multiple-fatality car crashes and poverty.
What is extraordinary about such footage is its method of capture. The narrowness of Western reports results from the accompaniment of journalists by security forces – so-called “embedded journalism” – which only permits coverage in certain geographical areas and prevents reporters from accessing civilians, who steer clear of Kevlar vests. Danish-Afghan Khaja ingeniously equips around 30 Afghan civilians with camera phones, and asks them to film their daily lives, crucially without taking any personal risks. He calls them all ‘directors’, and paid them for their footage by the memory stick.
Khaja’s sensitivity towards presenting a true understanding of Afghanistan is clear in his conscious efforts to choose both men and women, young and old, of different ethnic backgrounds and districts. Still, he concedes that cultural and religious beliefs restricted his aims, as documentation by and of the lives of women, whom the men will not film, is limited. Indeed throughout the documentary, references to the camera’s being an untrustworthy Western device, and a somewhat hesitant and nervous curiosity, can be seen written across the faces of Afghans questioning Khaja’s own cameraman.
Animosity towards all things foreign, however, is not the underlying message of the film. Whilst one striking piece of footage shows young Afghan boys throwing rocks at overwhelmingly armoured ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) troop carriers as they pass through a village, one interview depicts the abuse of civilian trust by the Taliban equally as often. As is uncovered, the Taliban are known for encouraging civilians out of their homes, knowingly risking the lives of innocent bystanders, to act as ignorant coverts in their attacks. Afghan civilians are between a rock and a hard place, but recurrent personal links to the Taliban – such as the Talib school friend of one of the directors – as well as linguistic barriers between English-speaking troops and Aghans, means that favour is shifting away from Western efforts of stabilisation. Civilians, Khaja states, understand the culture of the Taliban, and can to some extent predict what could happen, whereas this is not the case with foreign forces.
Overall, Khaja makes clear his belief, and the belief he has found to be held by most Afghans, that Afghanistan cannot be reconstructed from without. Perhaps one of the film’s most poignant moments is when a farmer returns to his home that now stands as an ISAF base. Where once his mulberry bush had stood shading plum, apricot and pomegranate trees, where there had been lush grass and memories of his peaceful life of day-to-day subsistence, was now a cleared space. With barbed wire and the stumps of his once 400-tree orchard, the scene aches with the reality of diplomacy turning a blind eye to the human side of reconstructing Afghanistan.
It it precisely this side, and the roughness of the untrained footage, that gives My Afghanistan its poignancy. The images from the civilian recruits are blurred, shaky and, on one occasion, sideways. Prolonged, these images tip into the unwatchable. But it is footage of what these Afghans hold most dear – their children, their homes, their friends. In scenes of fear and injury, weariness and adrenaline direct a camera more truthfully than most. The Western obsession with the slickness of digital media is only now breaking – this film is the exemplar for why documentaries in particular must be judged on their content, not their production values.
That said, interspersed (and digitally-perfect) footage by Khaja’s professional cameraman only add to the human-focus of the piece. Scenes of Khaja’s fear that one of his civilian recruits had been injured after foreign troop presence is increased, his reasonableness when a female director is too scared to continue with the project, and his message that the civilian story has failed to be comprehensively told, all illustrate his mature understandings of Afghan cultures, and the difficulties faced by the Afghan people. He has remained in touch with them all.