Thursday, April 30, 2009

Heading to Toronto for HOT DOCS

It has been a busy week in the office preparing for HOT DOCS, North America’s biggest documentary festival.  Sean has been burning DVDs like a maniac, and we’re getting very excited about the opportunity to pitch THE PROMISE OF FREEDOM.  The film was one of five selected to participate in the Good Pitch, a pitching session that features human-rights focused documentary film projects in front of high profile film funds, organizations and NGOs.   This is the first time the Good Pitch has been done on this side of the Atlantic.  Can’t wait to see all our friends from Fledgling Fund and Chicken & Egg Pictures!  We’ll be blogging and tweeting from the road, so please check back.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Afghanistan News and Analysis

CNN special reports about the resurgent Taliban, new threats to troops, public opinion, opium production increase, and historical analysis.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

A(nother) Blow to Women's Rights in Afghanistan

"It's the Taliban all over again," an Afghan woman said to me as I was loading my luggage in the car to head to Kabul International Airport. "It's just unbelievable."
The disbelief and outrage is over a new law--just signed by President Karzai last week--that legalizes rape in marriage by forbidding women from refusing sex; bans a woman from leaving the home, working, or seeing a doctor without her husband's permission; and grants child custody only to fathers and grandfathers in cases of divorce. Women must also wear makeup if their husbands demand it.

"When a husband dies, women can only inherit movable property--no houses or land," this woman told me as she quickly transferred a damning UNIFEM report onto a USB drive. This would keep me busy on my overnight layover in Istanbul.

It is obvious that in an attempt to win support in the upcoming August elections, President Karzai (who is wildly unpopular) is trying to appease Islamic fundamentalists. What's not so obvious to me as I wave goodbye is where the hell the West was when this bill was drafted a year ago. In situations like this, I want to count on Hillary Clinton to spring from a phone booth, her human rights cape whirling. Isn't this a violation of international law and Afghanistan's own constitution, which mandates equal rights for men women?

I believe women are a bellwether in society--and what happens with them is an indication of where the society is heading. Women may be the first to lose their rights, but they are usually not the last. Therefore, it should come as no solace that this law affects Afghanistan's Shiite community(that's about 15 percent of the population who are allowed under the constitution to have their own family law).

Even as President Karzai simultaneously defends the bill and says it will be reviewed due to global uproar, another family law--this one for the Sunni majority--is in the works.

"This is a disaster for women," is one of the last things I heard as I left Afghanistan. And those words are still ringing in my head.

Other Reading:

Washinton Post Article
New York Times Article
Al Jazeera Report

Thursday, April 02, 2009


Budding Documentarians…. We’ve been training students to use small HDV video cameras that we will leave behind when we head back to the States. We’ve never done something like this before – but we’re hoping that they’ll provide us with some intimate family and village life material that we would not otherwise be able to capture. There is some trepidation about handing over expensive electronics.
Nadia, a third-grader who took the camera home last night, beamed as she showed us her footage this morning. But then we saw her in many of the shots. Wait a minute! Who’s filming? Her father had taken charge of the camera, she told us. Ultimately, we like the idea that the whole family buying into this project. There are three girls we’ve trained: Khodija (the orphan whose 12-year-old sister is engaged), Nadia (first in her class and one of 12 children thanks to her father’s marriage to two women—both of whom I was able to interview), and Raila (the 18-year-old fifth grader who wants to be a police officer some day).


Love Marriage… since the majority of marriages here are arranged, it’s rare to hear about two people who fall in love and live happily ever after. When it happens, though, it’s called a “love marriage.” But trying for a “love marriage” when your parents want an arranged marriage is illegal. I learned today about a boy and girl who ran off together the day before her arranged marriage. They were hoping to escape to Tajikistan. But her parents called the cops and the lovebirds were arrested and thrown in jail. It’s common for people to sit behind bars for years for this “crime.” I’m working on setting up an interview with them when we return to Kabul in a few months.


The vote is in… and the winner is… corruption. You’re supposed to be 18 to register to vote, but we know a 15-year-old who has a voting card. “They’re so easy to get,” his sister told us. “You’re supposed to show your identification card to get one, but a lot of people here don’t have any ID, and they give them to you anyway. They’re desperate for people to vote.” Is she planning to vote? “I don’t know – there aren’t any candidates worth voting for, that’s how a lot of us feel.” And if you’re finding it hard to get a voting card for some reason, don’t worry – you can buy one.


A new Iranian complex—replete with mosque, madrassa and TV station—is working hard to spread anti-Americanism in Afghanistan. Since the TV station hit the airwaves, the religion-politics Molotov cocktail has been stirring up resentment among locals about the invading infidels.


It’s official – we moved! And we love our new pad. I have 10 light bulbs in my room!! We’re near American University and the former Russian Cultural Center (now a drug den). The house has some tin sloping on the roof, so we can hear the pitter patter of the rain. We’ve already taken to calling it PPK (Principle Pictures Kabul). Many summers ago I taught a course at American University Paris—and had promised myself I’d look into other AU opportunities around the world. Never did… until now.


It’s going to be hard saying goodbye to everyone, but I’m thrilled with what we’ve filmed and the relationships we've built. This is officially my last blog from Kabul--but I will keep writing! (If you're interested, over the past few days I've been able to add pictures to past blog entries. Success!)

Wedding Present for Nilab

Eighteen-year-old Nilab asked for one present from her husband when they were married: his permission to let her teach. “This is the only gift I wanted,” says Nilab—two years later—standing before her fourth grade class. “And he agreed.”

Nilab’s first teaching job is here at the Zabuli School. “I plan everything so carefully, and decide each night how I will start class the next morning and precisely what I will say.”

As she’s talking, I can tell she’s nervous. She pulls me aside and asks, “When you filmed me yesterday, could you hear my voice?” Yes, I tell her. “Oh, I’m so ashamed,” she said, her eyes widening. “I made some mistakes when I was speaking Pashtu. You have to delete it.” You’re trilingual, I tell her, you’re entitled. “No,” she insists, “you have to get rid of it.”

For school director Zia Haidai taking care of the eight teachers here is as important as caring for students. “All of our teachers come from Kabul,” he says—meaning they’re city girls who aren’t used to village life, and, perhaps more important, village life isn’t used to them.

“We are not allowed to go outside the gate,” Farzana, the school’s 3rd Grade teacher says, pointing to the red metal entrance. “The villagers are very conservative, and they don’t approve of us.”

Jeans. Makeup. Visible eyes, nose and mouth. There’s a lot to disapprove of. Zia had to lay down some ground rules. No tight clothing. As little makeup as possible. Head scarves a must all day. No walking on the streets outside the school. Long skirts past the ankles are always preferable to pants.

The teachers, Zia says, are one of the major reasons why he works so hard to keep village elders and religious clerics happy. “I don’t want them to make a rule that our teachers have to wear a burqa like all the other women in the village,” Zia says. He knows that if given a choice between a burqa or a job, they’d all put on their Levis and walk.

But it’s a delicate balance, school founder Razia Jan admits. Keeping everyone happy can be time-consuming and expensive, and it’s already a struggle to keep her own school running.

And as much as I think keeping the villagers happy is a slippery slope, the security concerns demand it. That means delivering freshly slaughtered sheep meat—as they will do this Friday—is as important to their safety plan as the security guards who sit near the gate around the clock.

You don’t have to go far to find girls’ schools under attack. Last year—just 30 minutes down the road—a girls’ school was burned down by terrorists.

“When I hear a report like that on the news,” Zia says, “I call the guards to alert them.” And since phone service is often down in Afghanistan, Zia reminds the guards that they have ten different numbers to call in case of an emergency. Then he spends a sleepless night. “I'm so anxious, and only feel better when I arrive at the school the next day and see for myself that everything is alright.”