Horace Shansab on His Movies and Afghanistan
(from brinkzine.com 8/14/07)
Horace Ahmad Shansab’s “Zolykha’s Secret” is the second full-length narrative to emerge from post-Taliban Afghanistan, following “Osama.” It is about a gentle rural family that is ripped apart under the rule of the Taliban. Picture “Cave of the Yellow Dog” if that sweet Mongolian farm family met a calamitous fate. Shansab’s film is uncompromisingly bleak yet tender, both political and humanistic, and exhilaratingly original. I thought it was the best narrative feature at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and immediately established Shansab as an international director we should keep an eye on. That’s why when I learned he was about to leave his home in Virginia and disappear for the next year or two in Afghanistan while making his follow-up film, I felt it was important to interview him now, even before “Zolykha’s Secret” found a distributor. We spoke about his film and his native country.
Danny Peary: Were you born in the United States or Afghanistan?
Horace Shansab: I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. My family is spread across the world. Some live in Afghanistan, some in the States, and some in Europe and other parts of the world.
DP: How often do you go back and when you do, do you feel like you’re home or do you feel like an outsider?
HS: I go back as much as I can for as long as possible. While making “Zolykha’s Secret,” I stayed there nearly two years without leaving. I feel both at home and like an outsider in Afghanistan. But, I feel like that wherever I go. That may be the case for most refugees, immigrants, and displaced people. There are some places in the world that I prefer and where would like to spend more time, but everywhere I go, I feel that I belong and am, at the same time, a stranger. If I happen to like a place and its people, I feel at home there, even if I’m not from there, but if there are bad vibes, an unwelcome feeling, then it’s time to move on.
DP: Do you find yourself trying to convince others and yourself that you are not an outsider?
HS: I am sure I tried as an awkward teenager and in my twenties, and finally gave up.
I have never succeeded at not feeling that I’m an outsider. However, some time along the way, it dawned on me that one doesn’t need the confidence and sensation of being an “insider” to have an identity. In fact, my feelings of being an outsider can be quite liberating. After the initial insecurities and awkwardness, one can actually come to feel a sense of universality, of being International, of belonging to nowhere and everywhere at the same time. I find a deep connection to regions where my forefathers never set foot, much less belonged to. Being an outsider gives one fresh perspective that can be used positively, if one chooses to.
I must say, that I resent blind and excessive nationalism and its opiate feelings of group identification, power, and control. There are so many more substantive ways for people to feel more confident about who they are. And history has proven that great dangers lurk in nationalistic fervor.
DP: Since often much time between your visits, are you always startled by the changes since your previous visit?
HS: Yes and no. When I went there to make my movie, it was a shock to see how much the wars and the Taliban had influenced society and made it even more conservative than it always had been. People with absolute power have that effect on their societies. I don’t believe religion is behind this sort of conservatism. We can point to tribalism and those who do not understand the moderate, humble, and tolerant nature of religion.
On some levels there are amazing changes since the Taliban that only the new, much smaller, world with Internet and globalization could bring about. On the other hand, certain customs, traditions, entrenched mindsets and other things don’t seem to change as rapidly. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by the resilience and pragmatism of average Afghans, especially the younger generation. Their ability to adjust and adapt and go against all odds is nothing short of inspiring. I am touched by their sense of humor and capacity to laugh even though life has dealt them a very difficult hand and many of their experiences have been tragic. Most Afghans are materially very poor and must fight an uphill battle daily. It is very difficult just to put a loaf of bread on the table.
DP: Is it true that even if you lived in one city or village in Afghanistan you’d feel like a stranger going to other parts of the country?
HS: Afghanistan is a multiethnic and multi-cultural place and an Afghan might feel quite strange traveling to a different village or part of the country. He may not speak their language or understand their specific customs, but I know from my own travels in the country that most Afghans tend to be very pragmatic and are very accepting of others.
There is truly great diversity because so many people--from ancient Greeks, Persians, and Mongols, to Pathans (ethnic Afghans) and Hindus--have all called that region home. One of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel (many believe the Pathans are the descendants) is said to have settled in Afghanistan. Tragically, throughout history, Afghanistan has been destroyed several times over, either by invading armies or by internal strife. Each time, various segments of population had to pick up the pieces, settle elsewhere, and start from scratch. Afghanistan’s unique ethnic and cultural diversity is the result of the amazing way it came into existence.
DP: What language or dialect do you speak when you are there?
HS: I speak Dari, which is Afghan Old Persian, with a Kabuli dialect, I suppose.
DP: “Zolykha’s Secret” is in Dari, Pashto, and Arabic. Did that make it more difficult for you?
HS: I had great and very natural translators with whom I developed a wonderful rapport. It wasn’t a problem at all. It took a bit extra time, but that was not a problem, just another challenge. The cast was very diverse and didn’t all speak Dari. Mahmur Pashtun, who played the Taliban defector who helps the children flee, didn’t speak a word of Dari when he started out in the film. He spoke his native Pashto language with a distinct regional dialect making it even harder for him to communicate. I was roundly criticized by some of the cast and crew and one of the translators for hiring someone who could not easily communicate through his native language. But when I met him, I saw in his eyes a genuine desire to be part of the film and to play that part. His inability to communicate verbally made him acutely sensitive, observant, and responsive to body language. Soon we could communicate without much difficulty. (I relied on another, unofficial translator). Ultimately, he gave a very honest and touching performance.
DP: What led you to become a filmmaker?
HS: My early influences were Hollywood and European films, Russian films and some very good Iranian films of the 70s. I particularly loved Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti westerns and the epics of David Lean. Bollywood films were not real influences, but more like occasional diversions that family members would take me to see every once in a while. My grandmother, Tahera Shansab, and other family members always encouraged me to mimic the characters from those films and tell stories. I knew that I wanted to make films from a very young age, and saved up for my first Super 8 film camera at the age of twelve. It was then that I started to make family films and shorts. I believe that I had clarity of vision and a voice as a young teenager that I lost in my twenties, but I hope to have found again since my thirties.
DP: Did you end up near Washington D.C. to further your studies or to work for National Geographic?
HS: When we immigrated to the US, we naturally thought that Washington D.C., the nation’s capital, would offer us the most opportunities. My father moved us to Virginia, in one of D.C.’s suburbs. We have stayed there ever since. Working for National Geographic was great experience. The core of my job there was to send large expeditions into the field. I traveled some and made great lifelong friends and saw fascinating places. I also discovered that I had a great deal in common with folks who gravitate toward exploring nature and far away regions of our world. We seem to have this desire to venture far beyond ourselves. We all love adventure and travel, and I love the sense of discovery and exploration that comes with that. I think children have a similar, intuitive sense of adventure, but they grow up and lose it because of other more “serious” life concerns.
DP: Did you make wildlife documentaries that weren’t financed by National Geographic?
HS: I was always fascinated by nature, wildlife, but never had any interest or desire in making those films myself. Being a wildlife filmmaker is a very lonely and harsh lifestyle. I love and need solitude, but not to the extent of disappearing for months on end to capture a magical natural-history sequence. I have always been more interested in peoples’ stories. Also, I missed the creative aspects of making films while running the expedition room at National Geographic. Ultimately, I always felt more comfortable making narrative, fictional films. I felt more at home and creative trying to capture the essence of a story in a more indirect, circumspect way. Additionally, I enjoyed the interaction with actors.
DP: Did you write and direct shorts? Did they get any distribution or play in festivals?
HS: The stories that have been with me and still come to mind don’t lend themselves easily to short formats, unless I cut them at 400 images a second. I had a couple of shorts that I thought about entering in festivals in the past but never got around to it. At the time I never thought that much of film festivals and other competitions. I was too cynical in a way. But I now do believe film festivals are one of the best ways to screen films publicly, and they can be extremely instructive and rewarding for any aspiring filmmaker regardless of whether they’re making shorts, features or documentaries. Seeing so many different films from all over the world can be a wonderfully enlightening and inspiring experience.
DP: How long did you plan on making your own feature film? Was “Zolykha’s Secret” always going to be your first film or did you work on other projects simultaneously?
HS: I had planned to make a narrative feature for over ten years. There were two previous feature film projects that never materialized due to problems with funding. “Zolykha’s Secret” was the first story that I decided to make in Afghanistan.
DP: Did you feel obligated because of the situation in Afghanistan to make films about life there? Do you think you always will feel that obligation or do you anticipate eventually making films set in the United States and not being political at all?
HS: I would say that I feel a certain responsibility to tell stories about Afghanistan. I hope that sense of responsibility isn’t fickle and won’t disappear easily. Afghanistan may be a poor and devastated nation, but it is also a very relevant place during our lifetime. It is where many wars were fought throughout history, and where the most perilous threat in human history, the Cold War, took a decisive turn. When it comes to studying the dynamics, manipulations and conflicts between the progressive, industrialized West and the traditional, developing Moslem world, Afghanistan is an important place to analyze and understand.
One hopes to always be inspired by stories that can engage an audience, that can ask relevant questions and search for a bit of truth and beauty.
As an immigrant to the West, I’m equally fascinated and curious about western attitudes and principles—the various Western ways of life. I think one needs to resist romanticizing any civilization too much whether it’s the East, or the West, so one doesn’t become blinded and lose perspective. One should avoid getting caught up or seduced by the grandeur and pomp of history. There are plenty of dark, insidious secrets around every corner of history, in every attempt made by man to justify his desire for power, domination and control.
I do hope that in the future, at some stage in my career, I will have the opportunity to try my hand at lighter material as well, perhaps a comedy. Humor is magical and among the best qualities we possess as human beings.
DP: If the Taliban were still in power you obviously couldn’t have made an anti-Taliban film such as “Zolykha’s Secret,” but would you have tried to make a film in Afghanistan?
HS: I didn’t set out to make an “anti” anything sort of film. I set out to tell a story set at a particular time in Afghanistan’s history (when the Taliban was in power) that was--and in many ways still is--a very difficult period for the population. My intention was to tell an honest story, and that included how I saw the Taliban’s place in the country’s recent history. When the Taliban came into power, they actually brought hope to some Afghans because they believed the Taliban’s promise to establish security and order. At the time, Afghans longed for a respite from the chaos of war that had engulfed them for years.
The Taliban, however, did not deliver on their word. They became corrupt and tyrannical and fell under the spell of a more militant and fundamentalist group linked to Al Qaida and expatriate fanatics. From the Taliban’s perspective, they had nowhere else to turn, as they were isolated when the rest of the world disengaged from them entirely. Most of the Taliban, with a few exceptions, had very little sophistication or knowledge of how the outside world would react to their cruelty and oppression, particularly toward women. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and it was unchecked power that spoiled even the few good intentions put forth by the Taliban. So, those in power proceeded to tyrannize much of the population. They persecuted and killed thousands of innocent Afghans whose only crime was to belong to certain tribal minorities. Their destruction of Afghanistan’s cultural artifacts, including the museum of Kabul and the standing Buddha’s of Bamian, further revealed their utter ignorance and dark vision for the country. Their cruel attitude toward women had no bounds. Women were crippled, both literally and figuratively, by pseudo religious laws and interpretations. Horrified audiences around the world saw videos of women, most of whom were accused of murder and other capital crimes, executed publicly. In five years, the Taliban managed to shackle almost an entire population with tyrannical edicts, and create a climate of darkness and oppression. That’s the world in which the family in “Zolykha’s Secret” tries to carry on with its simple life.
DP: Looking back at this time when you set your film, and what has happened since in regard to the West’s dramatic incursion into the Moslem world, what lessons are to be learned?
HS: The period when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan reminded me of some of the Dark Ages in Europe. In time, the interpretation and practice of religion in daily life in Europe was tested and challenged. As a result, there was enlightenment and reformation, which paved the way for the beginnings of modern democracy. I believe that today, the Moslem world needs to evolve and learn from its current experiences with fundamentalism, absolutism and tribalism. And it is in the best interest of the West to help the Moslem world in productive ways--in ways that empower the moderate majorities and help them in their struggles against ignorance and the misinterpretation of Islam. But deceiving them or trying to reinvent their world in the west’s image will backfire. It is now time to reevaluate the concept of purely strategic maneuvers and of Realpolitik. If strategic policies and doctrines threaten the lives and well being of millions of citizens, including the pivotal moderate population, then there will be more conflict and tragedy and no peace. We must fundamentally change our view and become even more equalitarian. We must value the lives of others more and consider their plight. As citizens, we must educate ourselves about our own policies past and present and learn from their consequences and ramifications. We must strive to find better alternatives. It’s enormously important for the future of our world.
DP: Did you have a theme in mind first and then come up with your story for “Zolykha’s Secret,” or did the story come first?
HS: I can’t really say I had a “theme.” The lives of the members of one rural Afghan family caught up in war and conflict was on my mind. I wanted to get inside their minds and get a sense of their place, their time, their lives, their world.
DP: Why do you think you came up with this particular story of a sweet rural family that is torn apart because of the Taliban?
HS: I was interested in a story that reveals the historical complexity that exists in a seemingly primitive surrounding in Afghanistan. The lives and tragedy of the rural Afghan family in “Zolykha’s Secret” are far more complex than they may appear on the surface. The family is torn apart not only because, as you say, the Taliban came to power, but also because of Afghanistan’s haunting history in which there were many years of war, invasions, and devastation. It’s that horror and violence that led up to the Taliban, and, in fact, created the Taliban, setting the stage, ultimately, for further tragedy. Clearly, the Taliban are partly responsible for the destruction of this rural Afghan family, but there are many other forces and preceding events that take their toll. Even Nature itself is as much a culprit as a savior.
DP: Your movie is fiction, but did any parts of the film come from things you witnessed or heard about?
HS: The film is based on a collection of real events and stories that I researched or heard about. I then wrote them into a dramatic narrative. I interviewed many people in Kabul and in rural areas. Many came forward with horrific events they had witnessed and were very eager to share them. It was therapeutic for them to talk about their harsh experiences. Many talked of feeling like they were living inside a dark prison. Several women told me stories of being beaten, coerced into marriages, and treated worse than cattle. But there were also positive stories of courage, from men protecting women, even making it possible for them to study covertly. There also were stories of strangers sharing their food with women who were not permitted to work. Such things were on my mind as I wrote the film.
DP: Talk about casting, which I know was quite difficult.
HS: Casting was enormously difficult. I saw a couple of thousand children and adults before deciding on each role. Some of the casting was sheer luck, a simple accident, as when a friend or neighbor came along with someone we had called back and they were ideal for a part. Finding women for the roles was most challenging, because in that conservative society, some Afghan men (and women) still cannot accept women participating in artistic endeavors. We made sure that when we cast women, we had the approval and encouragement of their male family members. We were concerned about any backlash, once we had moved on. Thankfully, everyone who appeared in our film received the full blessing and consent from their families. Casting the Taliban characters and the role of Yusuf was also challenging. I wanted authenticity, and we tried hard to find people who were appropriate for the roles. Ultimately, you go with your gut feeling and hope you’re right. I’m glad to have cast Mahmur Pashtun in for the role of the Taliban deserter. Initially, Mahmur’s inability to understand Dari (Afghan Farsi) was considered a major liability, and I had to fight for him. We were lucky. He approached his character with great honesty and dedication. He was very afraid at first, sometimes trembling. but after a couple of days, he immersed himself in his role, and found the courage to carry on with his experience. Later he told me that after being terrified initially, he enjoyed the work of make believe and hoped to be cast in more films. In real life, he’s a very poor and hard working father who struggles each day to make ends meet. With the money he made on the film, he was able to fund a small, very humble brick house for himself and his family alongside a very rough mountain. Abdul-Wahed Hasanzada played the mercurial, volatile Yusuf. I was touched by him. It took courage for him to play that role. I was lucky to have such wonderful collaborators.
DP: Was it hard working with a mix of amateurs and professionals, including the kids?
HS: Yes, at first. Oddly, the most difficult thing was to deal with professionals who had developed annoying, stifling acting habits and had a hard time losing them I found that the amateurs, by contrast, were much more vulnerable and spontaneous. I think professionals would do well to remember their first instincts and insecurities; they’d do well to remember how they were before they built up all those unnecessary and confining walls (“of confidence”) around their bodies, souls and imaginations. I was lucky that, ultimately, the professionals who acted in “Zolykha’s Secret” were all so eager, passionate and vested in the film that they worked very hard to arrive at the truths of their characters. They were careful not to hit false notes, because they truly believed in the story and our project. In turn, I tried to create an atmosphere of accessibility, and of trust between all of us.
DP: Was it odd working with actors who were actual Taliban sympathizers?
HS: None of the men ever admitted to having been a sympathizer, so it would be imprudent to say they were. We did cast some very conservative men from rural areas who fit the roles. At first some of the men thought of filmmaking and the arts as improper, even obscene. But after seeing us working for a couple of days, they became most interested and even lobbied to be cast. Ultimately, patience, and communication helped us get through to them. By the end of the shoot some of the men who had protested, liked the idea of cinema and were most supportive of it. They later explained to me that they had been told all cinema was pornographic and sexual. “Zolykha’s Secret” confirmed to them that it was otherwise. Many also identified with a rural family caught up in war and conflict.
As I mentioned, most Afghans are very practical, pragmatic people. Once I explained to them what we wanted to do, and played back some of the takes, most of those who may have been sympathetic to the Taliban came around to supporting us. I think their lack of introduction to the modern world and their fear and ignorance of the unknown made them much more susceptible than any ideological or intellectual conviction. I rarely, if ever, felt that there were ideological motivations stemming from a certain Islamic world vision. Most I met were acting out of fear of losing control, of being engulfed again in the flames of war. They themselves confessed of the mistakes the Taliban made and their later dependence on expatriate militants from the Middle East. Once they realized that there was no dishonor or harm in making a film, telling a story, and doing what we did, they were very supportive.
I found that the most crucial thing was to not disrespect their intelligence and to have the patience to communicate and make them truly understand the process and our motivations. Then it was up to them and their conscience as to whether they wanted to participate or not. Most of them did. A few walked away. Only one person, an elderly man, possibly a clergyman, directly objected and said that filming and the arts were against Islam. There are those who feel they know God better than anyone else, and it’s no use to argue with them. Most of those people are blinded by their own ignorance or the brainwashing they’ve received at the hands of other ignorant and/or manipulative individuals. However, there are ways to challenge them without it necessarily leading to direct and possibly hostile confrontation.
DP: Who was your crew?
HS: We had a skeleton crew by narrative feature-film standards, only six people, myself included. Two reasons for the small crew were that I planned a documentary approach to the film and I didn’t want to travel with a large crew in tow due to security considerations. Also, I felt that having a smaller crew would be more beneficial when working with non-actors. The small crew was not as intimidating and impersonal; the actors could actually form relationships with everyone involved. Another beneficial aspect of a minimal crew is that one can really look out for the best possible candidates to be part of the film. I looked long and hard and found persons who I felt possessed the passion to make our film. And they appreciated the opportunity to give all of themselves to their craft. They were all Afghans, not an imported crew from abroad. I wanted to collaborate on this particular film with an Afghan crew and for us to mutually grow from the experience. Working with this crew, as well as the cast, was one of the most rewarding and worthwhile experiences of my life.
DP: Talk about dealing with authorities. Did you have to deal with American forces at all to get your film made?
HS: We went through all the official channels to secure every aspect of our filming. Afghan Film, the governmental production agency, was very helpful to us. I had a great production manager, Nur Nuri, and he made sure that there were no problems or loose ends. Also, I tried to make sure that authorities knew where we would be filming. One of our scariest moments was when two Allied helicopters, apparently unaware that we were filming at a particular location, cornered us--literally pinning the crew against a mountainside. We were in plain sight and I could see the pilots’ startled faces and their nervous demeanor, which scared the hell out of me and everyone else. They could have blown us up with one nervous twitch, or fired on us if anyone accidentally moved. They pinned us like that for at least 35 minutes, until they received confirmation that we were a legitimate film crew and not terrorists.
Since we were filming characters representing militants and the Taliban, we were concerned that we’d be mistaken for the real ‘bad guys,’ as they’re called by the American troops. Friendly-fire incidents in Afghanistan were quite rampant. The terrain is quite complex, communication difficult, and there were plenty of nervous, scared or trigger-happy lads ready to fire away at anyone they perceived to be the enemy.
DP: While making your film, was anyone watching the production?
HS: Do you mean any officials or security? There were no officials spying on us, at least not to my knowledge. I made sure that I had as much freedom as possible to purse the film as I had planned.
DP: Did you have trouble finding locations without landmines?
HS: Landmines are a still a terrible problem in Afghanistan. They are a testament to man’s inhumanity toward man—and to women and children, too. One sees a beautiful landscape in the distance, and is naturally tempted to run out and explore further. But it is crucial to make sure whether that beautiful land is clear of mines. Every day several Afghans lose their limbs to landmines. Many of them were planted during the Soviet period and the ensuing civil war. There are millions of them littering the countryside. Some of the mines were planted in fertile agricultural fields, so that they would destroy farmers’ livelihoods, decimate their families, and entire villages. There are no location maps or records that reveal where the mines were planted, so clearing them will be a daunting task for many years to come.
We went to great lengths to make sure that the area where we were filming did not pose mine dangers. We were obviously concerned for everyone in the cast and crew but particularly for the children who had been entrusted in our care. We checked with everyone about the land involved, and each morning a few courageous members of the crew would proceed ahead of the rest of us to walk the area, comb it, and reassure everyone else that we could film there without worry over life and limb.
DP: Did you have a producer with you?
HS: No, there was no producer looking over my shoulder. I had to produce the film myself and did it to varying degrees of success. I found being a producer a bit distracting from being able to fully focus on directing, but one adjusts and compensates. I felt much better by the second week of filming and by the end of the shoot I felt the film would have been less personal if I had not produced it.
DP: Talk about the technical aspects of your film, the choices you made. .
HS: We filmed with both Super 16mm celluloid film and on digital video in an anamorphic format. Initially, the digital video was both insurance and a video backup for the takes we did on film. I grew up with film, and I had always wanted to work with it, but at the end, I was surprised that I preferred the digital electronic images for Zolykha’s story. The additional costs of film aside, to my eyes the digital images looked more appropriate in capturing the rough, rustic texture of our story. It also gave immediacy to the images, that the celluloid didn’t capture. Hence, I decided to finalize on digital video. Waqef Hussaini, the main cinematographer, and I decided early on not to stylize the film too much, but to keep the camera responsive to the actors and to what was happening on location in a mountainous, rural setting of Afghanistan. We were after the simplicity that was inherent in our story. I knew that our documentary approach coupled with the simple nature of our story might come across too much like cinema verité, but I think our stylistic decisions captured the inherent innocence of the story without manipulating it too much.
DP: Were you always going to be a cinematographer along with Waqef Hussaini? Was shooting the film more difficult than anticipated, perhaps because of the landscape?
HS: I had planned from the beginning to have two cinematographers on the set, and I knew that I was going to be one of them. I knew the technology and had experience operating both film and digital cameras. However, I knew that directing and producing might not allow me to also run the camera all the time. That was fine because I hoped to work with a cinematographer who could add something to the images from his own well of aesthetics and experiences. I felt it was important to have someone who I could bounce off ideas in regard to the visual approach. Waqef is a wonderful, very passionate cinematographer. He learned his new toys very quickly and was able to give all of himself to his work. He would run film while I shot digital, or vice versa. By the end I asked him to operate both cameras, and he was very effective. He did many of the steadicam shots.
DP: Did you always expect to play a part in the movie?
HS: No, at first, I had planned to ask a colleague to come and play the role that I ended up playing. It was a small part, and maybe it wasn’t interesting enough to my colleague. When I sensed that he had changed his mind, I decided to play the part myself. At first, it was difficult to concentrate on both directing and acting. But it all worked out by the end, and I actually enjoyed the acting process that I had studied in depth when I was much younger. When I was 19, I had actually thought about acting as a possible career, and I had been encouraged to do so by several wonderful teachers and persons in the theater and professional world. For a while, I had the desire to explore the art and I read all of Stanislavski’s works and everything I could get my hands on about the psychological aspects of drama and acting.
I even studied in New York and took drama classes. I have some wonderful memories from that period with great instructors who were very generous and giving. But I lost interest fast, my passion for it faded, and I remember becoming disappointed by the whole idea of acting. I soon scoffed at the whole acting profession, deciding it was vain and empty rather than a serious profession. I chose to take up what I had always wanted to do: making films. As a filmmaker, I felt more in control of my destiny than as an actor relying on other filmmakers to employ me. Ironically, as a director, I have found renewed interest in actors and respect for venturing into one’s own psyche to discover another human being’s soul. As I rediscovered while playing my small role in my movie, it can be scary, but no less exciting.
DP: I wasn’t sure what Zoykha’s secret is. Is it that she, the youngest daughter, has visions of past invaders of Afghanistan, as if she were part of a collective unconsciousness?
HS: Her secret may lie in her childish innocence that enables her to perceive a different world, a different plane of existence. Her secret may be her capacity to wonder and lose herself in her dreams so that they either reveal their essence or project a reality that may reveal its own energy. Her secret may be her capacity to learn from her dreams, believing in them enough to confront them and, as a result, get something out of them, such as knowledge and understanding. Her secret may be her ability to decipher the truth, or the essence of the truth derived from her subconscious. I think thoughtful viewers need to decide for themselves.
DP: As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly tragic. Did you ever worry that it was becoming increasingly risky in terms of scaring away viewers?
HS: No I never worried about scaring away viewers. I realized that the tragedy that this family experiences is relentless, but it was based in reality so I had faith in it. I know that viewers’ comfort levels vary and there is only so much tragedy they can take before turning off or shutting down their senses. I hope the film challenges viewers and also reminds them that tragedy is not just a Greek word without deeper and more meaningful connotations. I wasn’t after the quick pressing of those emotional buttons that exist purely to entertain audiences. That would have deprived them of deeper realizations and perceptions. Though there is tragedy, I didn’t want to make the family, or all Afghans, appear as solely victims, as simple pawns without their own realities. After seeing the film this spring at the San Francisco International. Film Festival, the Afghan scholar Tamim Ansari wrote me that he really appreciated that aspect of the film.
DP: Unexpected things happen to characters, particularly one of the three children. Was what happened to the child always supposed to happen or did you change things while making the film?
HS: I was open to changes while making the film. I was open to learning from the previous scenes and incorporating new ideas spontaneously. But I had decided on most of the events while writing the outline and script for the film during the preceding months of writing and planning.
DP: Some people may see the ending as completely despairing. Is that how you see it or is there a glimmer of hope?
HS: Although hope is eternal, and we all live with hope, the fate of this particular Afghan family challenges the viewer to recognize that despair is crucial to hope. Without utter despair, without hopelessness, hope would cease to have meaning. We don’t want despair to befall anyone, but it does every day, each second, to millions of human beings. Indeed, the world is sick and tired of knowing it. Sure, people pray and struggle to regain hope, but what do we do? Do we know what hope still means? When we hear about others’ despair and hopelessness, how do we respond? Does it matter to us, or is their suffering completely outside of our hemisphere? How many seconds of thought do we expend on introspection regarding the fate of others. Does tragedy still evoke horror, sadness, and shock? Or has it become meaninglessness?
I believe that in despair, there can be found great hope, but only if despair is not ignored, or glossed over by those too cynical or lazy to think like “alive” human beings. We must keep hope alive, don’t we? Just to be a doomsayer doesn’t get us anywhere. And there is much reason for hope. Humans can be quick to change and adapt. They can be wonderfully resilient and inspiring. And if they choose to care, they can rise to the occasion.
DP: In writing about your film you said that you hope the movie “reminds its audience that they were once children.” Today in the New York Times, an article was titled“7 Children Killed in Airstrike in Afghanistan,” and included this line: “The death of the children may well add to the rising anger many Afghans feel about civilian casualties from American and NATO military operations.” Considering that you made a film about children imperiled by all sides, how do you respond to reading that?
HS: Afghans have little or no public voice about deaths that are dismissed as collateral damage of the “War on Terror.” I think a lot of the collateral damage occurs due to faulty intelligence and the lack of sufficient manpower and security on the ground. The insurgents and militants also hide in areas populated by civilians, including women and children, and bear much of the responsibility. I know that President Karzai has protested recent killings of civilians and there is much discussion about how to minimize such losses. But what does one say to the family members of these innocents killed? How does one communicate to their villages about their losses? How does one prevent another cycle of vengeance and violence? We must ask ourselves those tough questions and spend much time considering how to communicate with Afghans in an effective manner. I believe if the Allied forces’ military was more prepared, had better intelligence and means to have stronger outposts in volatile areas, and had better communication to and relations with people in the involved regions, there would be far fewer losses and better coordination. If the lives of Afghans were valued more, if more resources were considered to create better safeguards, there would be fewer casualties. But war is war. It is itself a tragedy. And it was quite obvious in 2002 and 2003 that the decision was to keep the war in Afghanistan as cheap as possible and to focus on the war in Iraq. Ultimately, as we evolve, we must value the lives of innocents, especially those who are poor and voiceless, as equally precious and sacred as our own.
DP: When we first talked at the Tribeca Film Festival you were worried that I might have trouble adjusting to the unusual structure/storytelling method of the film. I saw and loved the film, and couldn’t figure out what you were worrying about. So tell me.
HS: This was my first long narrative film, so I projected my insecurities before my film was screened at Tribeca. The pacing is deliberate, especially in the beginning, and I worried that some people wouldn’t have patience for a film that builds slowly and takes its time. I think many viewers, young viewers in particular, have been weaned on fast cuts and constant bombardment with visual stimulation such as on MTV and in action movies. I also worried if people would be interested in my film at a time Paris Hilton’s escapades were getting far more coverage than Afghanistan. But luckily, we had the most extraordinary audiences during screenings at Tribeca and elsewhere. They were very emotional, very charged, and very responsive audiences. Their reactions have made it all worthwhile for me.
DP: You told me that in making “Zolykha’s Secret,” you wanted to show “how my people live and what’s important to them in the hope that this will reduce people’s fear of Afghans.” Is that what you want to show in your next film as well?
HS: I think throughout the world there is great fear of the unknown. And unfortunately, many people in the United States have the feeling that almost all people from Afghanistan or other Moslem countries are violent and seek their destruction. I want to show that is not the case. Most of the populations of these countries are very moderate and non-violent and don’t seek the destruction of the United States, or of Israel for that matter. They want to work, take care of their families, and live a peaceful life. Naturally they have opinions about their world and the injustices they rightly or wrongly perceive. Naturally they have grievances, some of them justified, some imagined, and some ludicrous. But those who want to take up arms represent a small, minority that is set apart from the vast moderate majority. The recent war in Iraq has caused much of the world to hate the US I know Kurds who are quite happy there is no more Saddam Hussein, and many Iraqi Shia groups are equally content to be rid of their oppressor and the old Baath regime. But even they see reason to resent the US for invading their country and creating a chaotic situation. Ultimately however, we must resist falling into the trap of perceiving these tragic conflicts as good old house cleaning and necessary preemptive strikes. We must not fuel these conflicts and bring about the start of a war between civilizations.
HS|: Yes, of course. Every day people suffer beyond our wildest imaginations. Every day is precious; every day is a possibility for positive change. Knowing that each day more people suffer and die needlessly should create more urgency, more passion to do what one can do. Time is of the essence. We must all be in a hurry to find ways to bring back harmony to our world. We must all struggle to find genuine respect and tolerance for one another. Each and every day a person can make a difference, each day the world could come together and cherish the presence and contribution of others, instead of fearing them. Time is short, life is short, and we all bear responsibility to do our share, in our own way. But we all must care, and act benevolently. As far as I know, that’s the basis of all morality of all religion and of all humanity. We must strive to understand what it means to be a good person. And then with good intentions, do good things. In Islam, intentions, called “niat,” are very critical to having a good productive life. Good intentions form the basis of a good life. Combine that with positive, benevolent actions and we can all live in a golden era of peace and harmony.
DP: At Tribeca, another excellent documentary, “Postcards from Tora Bora” by Wazhmah Osman and Kelly Dolak, made the point that Kubal and other cities weren’t always rubble and that people shouldn’t think that each new bomb that falls doesn’t matter. Do you feel the need to express the same sentiments?
HS: I was there as a young boy, when Kabul was a vibrant and bustling city. There was peace, laughter, and a sense of well-being in the capital. I was one of the privileged boys, but I would hang out with all the street kids, attend the same public school, take the bus with them, eat the same street food, and kick the same football. One never saw poverty or suffering on the streets, much less rubble or signs of destruction. Unfortunately, Kabul was not a reflection of all of Afghanistan, but it was symbolic of the progressive spirit that was passing through the country at that time. It should not be forgotten that there was poverty, hunger, and dissatisfaction among oppressed minorities and disenfranchised groups, especially in certain parts of the county. But all in all, the country was modernizing and trying to various degrees of success to build its infrastructure. But our leadership was unsophisticated and the Cold War was in full force. Afghanistan happened to be the country where the Cold War between Communist Soviet Union and the West was decided, and the West won. The Afghan nation bled then. Hopefully the suffering stops now, sooner rather than later. And regardless of how many bombs have fallen on the population in the past, each living Afghan wants to have a chance at a full life. And no one has the right to take that away from them or cut it short. Amidst the rubble today live human beings who just like you and I want a chance at happiness and peace.
DP: Tell me about your new film and when you’ll be going to Afghanistan to make it and for how long. Are any cast members from “Zolykha’s Secret” in your new film?
HS: The next film takes place in both the US and Afghanistan. It will focus on several characters from the West and Afghanistan who struggle to comprehend each other’s reality while working on an important reconstruction project. I hope to start production in the next few months. I haven’t selected the cast yet, but I will be open to anyone who strikes me as right for the roles. The cast of “Zolykha’s Secret” did such a memorable job individually and collectively that I shall always cherish their heartfelt, impassioned work. This film is not set in a rural setting, so we will have to look for the appropriate actors. Hopefully, we can also get the right actors here in the States. During Tribeca, I met two actors who I would love to work with on one of my next films. In my brief conversation with them, I realized how much they still love to explore the unknown and still willing to take crazy, mad risks. They still feel hungry after accomplishing so much already. They were very inspirational.
DP: What is your next year going to be like?
HS: Busy. I hope to start several films and there is a feature documentary that we are talking about filming. If the spirits of good luck visit us, I also would like to start building a Visual Arts Academy in Kabul that will teach young Afghan girls and boys to become journalists and storytellers.
DP: We talked about the despair of “Zolykha’s Secret,” and your reasons for it. But do you have to be hopeful about Afghanistan in order for you to make your movies about it?
HS: I have never been without hope for Afghanistan. Each Afghan—each human being, for that matter--who I meet and talk to gives me hope about our collective future as citizens of a wonderfully exciting and peaceful world. An acquaintance asked me yesterday about the precarious condition in Afghanistan today. Let me conclude this interview by telling you what I told him:
Much of the country is suspicious and weary of foreign incursions, which historically have led to devastation and very dark, painful periods. Most Afghans have supported and welcomed the U.S. presence, but the U.S. needs to be far more sophisticated and sensitive to make a positive, lasting difference. Just shooting away won't get the job done or win the hearts and minds of the people. Collateral damage has been a real problem and caused setbacks in U.S.-Afghan relations. Much of this can be blamed on the extremists, but there has to be better intelligence gathering and analysis before there is military action in heavily-populated areas..
Sadly, there's also very little interaction between U.S. forces and the population. If a better portion of the U.S. effort was spent on rebuilding roads and hospitals, restoring electrical power grids, and, most importantly, elevating education, the situation would be far less precarious, and the quality of life for most Afghans would improve. According to a study this year by a major Washington think-tank, only a fraction of the funds allocated for war-torn Afghanistan actually reaches the country; it’s something like 1/5, or around 20 cents out of each dollar, and the rest is overhead. Most of allocated funds are spent on military operations and the war against extremists. Very little substantive help reaches the desperate population.
The country is dependent on much needed assistance, until it can get back on its feet. But ultimately, Afghans must help themselves, if they want their country to evolve from a failed nation to one that is self-sustaining and peaceful. As it is, many Afghans fear that, ultimately, they're just voiceless pawns and that nothing will change. They're also afraid that extremists will assume power again.
In Afghanistan, I believe history resonates much more in the culture and minds of Afghans than in the industrialized, “progressive” West. “Zolykha’s Secret” deals with that symbolically, and that is a theme we wanted very much to communicate. Obviously, current events are tomorrow's history. History may reveal one day that much of the current conflicts are transitional pains associated with evolution and change, similar to events in Christian Europe of a few hundred years ago.
The wars have really hurt the country and the people. One of the biggest tragedies was the "brain-drain" that Afghanistan experienced during the war against the Soviets. Most of the educated, progressive population and anyone who had the means fled the country, leaving behind a terrible paucity of knowledge and progressive thinking. However, There were capable people who never left the country and now coming to the forefront. Also, some expatriates are trying to contribute, though there needs to be many more of them committed to help in any way possible. And I think that the pragmatic, flexible younger generation shows extraordinary potential to learn and be productive. In fact, all Afghans have much to learn and implement in order to improve their society and their lives. But one must not lose hope. In fact, there is much reason to be hopeful.
To find out more about “Zolykha' s Secret” and get the latest news on the film and Horace Ahmad Shansab, visit www.zolykha.com or email inquiries to email@example.com.