Audiences will notice that the most striking aspect of Nagieb Khaja's new film, My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone, is how revolutionary it is to see Afghans telling their own stories. Instead of embedding with troops in a war-torn area, or utilizing the tragedies of ordinary people to further a thesis, the director gave rural farmers near Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, phones with HD video capability and asked them to record their daily lives. The only direction he gave was to try not to film what they thought he would want to see, and to try to film for over a minute at a time.
The resulting footage, which Khaja sculpts into a feature film, is astounding for both its intimacy and its access. Eschewing the Orientalist images we in the West typically see of Afghanistan, the cameras used by the citizens of Lashkar Gah reveal more universal intimacies. One of the film's most powerful revelations is how little time the people of Lashkar Gah spend thinking and talking about the war on a day-to-day basis. Khaja finds a graceful balance between showing a unique perspective on the war as well as small slice-of-life chapters. Instead of highlighting Afghan citizens with b-roll shot out of moving vehicles at female figures wrapped in burqas, we see how women in rural communities clean their clothes and raise their children. Instead of shadowy images of bearded men shooting dirty looks at American Humvees, we see Afghan teenagers throwing mock wrestling matches, talking about finding love and discussing their economic futures.
Of course, the threat of violence is never far away, yet when the cameras capture gunfights, we experience these from the vantage of families huddled indoors. Rather than quickly edited montages of men exchanging bullets, we see concerned parents saying what they can to calm their children. A 90-some-minute-long rebuke of Orientalism, My Afghanistan: Life In the Forbidden Zone is at its best when it eschews political rhetoric in favor of cinematic anthropology.
This even-handed approach is due in large part to the work ethic of Nagieb Khaja. A Dutch journalist whose parents immigrated from Afghanistan in the 1970s, Nagieb has often spoke of the cognitive dissonance he experienced trying to reconcile his own experiences in Afghanistan with what the Western media told him about Afghans. His parents came to Europe not as refugees, but as upper middle class intellectuals who wanted to find higher quality work and better pay. As such, their memories and stories recall times that have nothing to do with AK-47s, mujahideen or foreign invaders. In fact, Khaja often cites Afghanistan's golden age from the 1930s to 1970s, when the country had a strong national government and was often called the Paris of Central Asia. While not a representative democracy, Afghanistan had a constitutional monarchy as well as a lively artistic scene. And though it has never been an economically equal society, the nation was capable of building infrastructure without foreign aid.
Nagieb came up with the idea of giving the cameras to the people themselves after seeing the distorting effect his presence had on villagers when he placed them in front of large cameras, bright lights and Western crew members. He hoped that if he took away some of the incentive to "perform," and rather allowed people to show what they wanted to show, more “life” would shine through. Thus Khaja gives us a visual portal into a country that, despite 12 years of American military presence, we in the US know next to nothing about. I was amazed, as one who follows the news, by how little I actually knew of the geographic terrain, or even the way the markets of Helmand province look without American Humvees rolling through them. In one of the film's most entertaining anecdotes, we see how a family maintains and drives a 1940s Land Rover with little more than determination, duct tape and wrenches.
The film's only disappointment, which is not to fault the filmmaker himself, is the relative lack of female stories. In spite of Khaja's efforts to place cameras in the hands of mothers, grandmothers and girls, most of these women were only able to shoot very limited portions of their lives for fear of being denounced as collaborators, spies, or even worse, anti-Islamists. Helmand province is one of the most conservative states in the country, and while Khaja works hard to try to tell the story of how the other half lives, he is ultimately frustrated by the logistical impediments of working in a war zone.
Ultimately, My Afghanistan: Life In the Forbidden Zone is essential viewing for anyone trying to understand the deeper context and societal setting of America's longest war. By documenting the quotidian concerns as well as the enormous problems faced by the people of Lashkar Gah, Khaja has made a unique contribution at once to the canon of journalism and cinema about the Afghan people in this chronic time of war.
Aaron Rubin is a director and producer - a graduate of the film program at California State University Long Beach. His first film, The Beautiful Resistance is the story of four Latino artists and how they're fighting racism through a brilliant combination of screen printing, spray painting and social networking. The Life and Times of Ziggy is the story of Marco Garcia, a former gangster and drug addict who at the age of 42, fights to reclaim his family and restore his relationship with his father and daughters. Both garnered grants from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.