Citizen Jane Film Festival: Day 1

FrameByFrame 75Despite the sometimes grim subject matter, Frame by Frame is ultimately a hopeful film.

 

 

 

 

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The Citizen Jane Film Festival couldn’t have asked for a better opening night film than Frame by Frame, a documentary about photojournalists in Afghanistan. Directed by Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, the latter a Mizzou grad, it embodies everything that is good about contemporary documentary filmmaking—an important subject, an approach that fits the subject matter, and the ability to transcend time and place and culture to help you understand the lives of people far outside your everyday experience.

In case you’re not up-to-date on recent history in Afghanistan, when the Taliban came to power, they banned photography, and destroyed existing photographs when they found them. It wasn’t just news photos they were after: wedding pictures, baby shots, graduation photos, images of departed relatives—all were considered equally evil and destroyed.

Following the 2001 invasion, the Taliban lost control of much of the country, and the media blackout was lifted. Of course it’s dangerous to generalize about Afghanistan, since different regions are controlled by different factions, and even in the capital of Kabul horrors like stoning women to death still take place (e.g. Farkhunda, who was killed and her body mutilated in public in March 2015 following the false charge of desecrating a Koran), but some individuals have much more freedom than they did under Taliban rule. One way that they have used that freedom is to take up photography as a profession.

Frame by Frame focuses on four courageous photographers, who risk their lives and liberty on a regular basis in the course of doing their work. They provide an alternative view of their country from the foreign photographers who fly in to take snaps of explosions but never become part of the culture of the country where those explosions take place. The single characteristic that separates these four photographers from the international pool of press photographers that provide most of the images we see of Afghanistan is that they, by birth and choice, are thoroughly embedded in the culture and history of Afghanistan, and that knowledge informs both their lives and their photographs.

The elder statesman is Najibullah Musafar, whose photos capture the beauty of Afghanistan (yes, despite all the troubles, it is a beautiful country), and who teaches photography to young people. Wakil Kohsar focuses on aspects of Afghani life that would otherwise remain hidden, and shows great sensitivity in interacting with the heroin addicts who form the subject of some of his work. Massoud Hossaini, whose photo of the aftermath of an explosion during an Ashura ceremony won him the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography, regularly visits with the family of the young girl (“the girl in green”) whose image occupied a central place in Hossaini’s prize-winning photograph.

In my book, however, the photographer with the greatest courage, who is doing the most important and most interesting work, is Farzana Wahidy, who chose to specialize in portraying Afghan women. There are many disadvantages to being female in Afghanistan (Farzana recalls how she was beaten on the street as a child for not wearing a burka, and was deprived of an education during Taliban rule), but because of the traditional segregation of the sexes, there are places where only a woman can go. Still, there are many taboos, and many dangers, because if the wrong people become offended, even in error, you could easily end up dead.

In a telling scene, Farzana visits a hospital in Herat where burn patients, including victims of self-immolation and assault by fire, are treated. She never gets to take pictures in the wards, but has a lengthy discussion with a physician who, although somewhat sympathetic to her work, is also acutely aware of the world in which they both live. For one thing, he tells her, they no longer use the term self-immolation—instead, everyone is just a burn patient, no matter how or why those burns occurred. More to the point, the physician says, if you offend the wrong person, the whole hospital could be destroyed and the staff killed. What is truly impressive in this scene is not the outcome of the discussion, but the way two people are able to have a civilized discussion, expressing strong and sometimes opposing points of view when the stakes could not be higher, and are able to acknowledge the merit of the other person’s points rather than just shutting down the conversation or repeating themselves louder and louder.

In the talkback, director Scarpelli said that audiences reacted in various ways to that scene—some thought the physician was terrible for not letting Farzana photograph in the wards, and others thought Farzana should have pushed harder to get the access she desired. To me, the scene is just a reflection of the reality of the time and place where it occurred, with both parties expressing their views, and with no need for people on the outside (i.e., those watching the film) to pick sides. The inclusion of this segment in the documentary demonstrates the kind of obstacles faced by Afghan photographers far more eloquently than if they stated in interviews that they faced many difficulties in their work.

Farzana is able make her point about immolation in a quiet interview with a woman who was set on fire by her in-laws. A child bride, she regularly endured beatings and finally was set on fire by them, waking up in a hospital where they insisted that she had set herself on fire (one means desperate women use to attempt suicide). The camera focuses on the delicate beadwork she is creating, while also showing the terrible scars on her hands and arms, thus allowing her to keep her dignity while also making an irrefutable point about her suffering. Notably, the woman’s greatest regret is that in order to be free of her abusive husband and his family, she had to agree to let him keep her daughter, and she fears that the young girl will also be mistreated by them.

Despite the sometimes grim subject matter, Frame by Frame is ultimately a hopeful film. A new generation of photographers is being trained, the work of the current generation is being recognized internationally, and together they can show the world the beauty of Afghanistan as well as the sometimes-terrible things that happen there. | Sarah Boslaugh

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