FilmAid in Afghanistan

One hundred Afghan children squeeze themselves inside a small classroom outside Kabul; the lights dim, and a twister in Kansas fills the screen. It’s The Wizard of Oz and for these children, ages 6 to 14, it is the first film they’ve ever seen. Before the screening, their teacher, a spirited woman in a red head shawl, has patiently explained the whole Oz story to them, so they’re able to follow the plot. Although the film is in English, the kids are utterly transfixed; their mouths hang open and they gasp with palpable shock when the film blooms from black and white into color. Out of respect for the local sense of propriety, a screening committee deemed the munchkins in frilly pink tutus inappropriate, and they were correspondingly fast-forwarded.

Not only have these children never seen movies, they have neither TV nor radio. Under the Taliban decree, they were never allowed even to see a photo of a woman---or a man pictured from the head down. All song and dance were outlawed. When Caroline Baron, FilmAid founder, asks the children to sing a song for her, she is met with blank stares. The children don’t know any songs. 

In late February 2002, three FilmAid volunteers flew to Kabul to see if they could set up a program for people in Afghan camps (called the “internally displaced”). Caroline Baron was accompanied by Michael Mailer, also a film producer, and Ed Beason, a logistician/filmmaker. Helping them on the ground in Kabul was Peter Bussian, information officer for the IRC, the New York-based group under whose auspices FilmAid has been working. They had much to accomplish: to meet with NGOs who might be interested in becoming local partners with FilmAid, to assess whether movies could be safely shown in a devoutly Muslim country that had been at war for almost 25 years, to do test screenings with children in Kabul, and to check out the local infrastructure---including the size of the potholes in roads that FilmAid trucks would need to drive. Movie screens bolted atop flatbed trucks are FilmAid’s novel solution to showing pictures in refugee camps---mainly outdoors, under the stars. 

Ensuring the safety of moviegoers was harder to assess. In Kabul, peacekeepers are everywhere, and although the city appears in parts to be one big bomb crater, it generally feels safe. Even miles outside the city, Baron, Mailer and Beason stumbled upon some British special forces hiding in the turrets of an abandoned palace. They revealed themselves shortly after a shattering earthquake, measuring 7.2 on the richter scale, shook the countryside. The soldiers leaned out from their tower and yelled down to Baron, asking her if she knew anything about earthquakes and what did she think---should they climb down from their turret? “I told them, yes, in my experience, there are usually aftershocks,” said Baron, and the English special forces took her advice. 

Haplessness about earthquakes aside, foreign peacekeepers appear to make Kabul a fairly secure place for FilmAid. And despite years of a Taliban prohibition on the arts, movies now seem to face no opposition. “Obviously we still need to take precautions to ensure the safety of our audiences,” says Baron, “but my initial fear thankfully seems to have been unfounded.”

What did become startlingly clear, was how much the Afghans wanted—and even needed—a program like FilmAid. 

As the kids spill out of a white minivan, they seem to be performing a magic trick: is it possible that the little van could contain so many children? There are three dozen, at least, or maybe four! They are arriving, along with nearly 400 other children for an afternoon FilmAid screening in an abandoned concrete barn. The kids overflow into old cow stalls—the floors covered with fabric. When Baron asks them what sort of movie they expect, few have seen any—and only one boy speaks up: “I want a fighting movie!” Instead of a Hollywood action flick, however, FilmAid screens Children of Heaven, an Iranian film about a little boy who shares his shoes with his sister because she has lost her own. Filmed in Farsi, the language is very close to the Afghan dialect, Dari, and the children have no problem understanding.Showing pictures from other cultures fulfills one of FilmAid’s goals: to chip away at the often-fatal misunderstanding between peoples. 

Breaking down barriers for women and girls is especially important in Afghanistan. Before the Oz screening, a group of schoolgirls talked shyly about the upcoming movie, and then it became apparent that they never actually expected to be invited to watch the film---that was for boys. Baron was delighted to tell the girls that, not only would they, of course, be included, but also that the film was a story about a little girl.

by Nina Teicholz, FilmAid volunteer June 12, 2002