Afghanistan Unveiled (airing on Tuesday, November 16 on PBS) makes much of its powerful backstory, and with good reason: the documentary is the first film “about Afghan women, by Afghan women,” says one of its fourteen native filmmakers, a graduate of an international program that produced the country's first newly trained women journalists in years. The doc's conceit will win it politically obligatory kudos, which is a bit of a shame – the film is mostly slight and unchallenging, hitting the dual notes of women's empowerment and oppression with passionate, yet emotionally unmoving, obstinacy. But Unveiled's filmmakers are also a courageous, compassionate, and keen-eyed group – their future work could be powerful indeed, if they are pushed to grapple with many sides of a story, and complement their desires to capture testimony with more complexity and analysis.
Funded by the Asia Foundation through a grant from the U.S. State Department, the documentary takes viewers on a road trip, minus the usual revelations. Most of the fourteen young filmmakers have only lived in Kabul – their lack of familiarity with the harsher conditions for women in places like Jalalabad, Herat, and Badakhshan is truly startling, especially for Western viewers who have been well-informed of Afghan women's suffering by U.S. feminist groups (passionately dedicated to the well-being of Afghan women) and the Bush administration (dedicated to passionate rhetoric about the well-being of Afghan women). As a result, watching one of the reporters blurt out, “I realized that women in Kabul have more freedom than women in the provinces!” feels less than earthshattering.
The profound chasm between the educated, presumably more well-off filmmakers and their poverty-stricken sisters in the countryside does point up the ongoing situation of life in Afghanistan – a frightening lack of security outside the capital, unending struggles with warlordism, drug trafficking, and draconian restrictions on women's rights that neglectful U.S. policies towards Afghanistan have done little to alleviate. But overt criticism of U.S. actions is nonexistent in the film, save for a story about a cluster bomb that killed one woman's relatives – not surprising, perhaps, given the source of the film's funding.
The documentary does offer some fascinating insights into the elaborate hierarchy of Afghan society, the harsh beauty of the landscape, the overwhelming hospitality with which many Afghans greet the filmmakers, despite the villagers' apparent impoverishment. And it does offer those subversive glimpses, that underground critique of the Western inattention to Afghanistan in stories like that of Zainab, a Hazara widow who lives in the caves near the destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan. Zainab asks, “Meat, what is that! We don't remember what it is like,” as the filmmakers note that there is little evidence international aid has reached this hungriest of communities. Zainab reaches down with her gnarled hands to show the camera her thin, worn leg – “I'd like to get a little fatter,” she says, with a bit of angry humor. “Where is the meat?”
Zainab speaks with an uncommon poetry – “Where did the Taliban come from? Were they sent by God?” she asks. “They came like a great plague.” A subject like Zainab suits the filmmakers, who have formed the bulk of Unveiled around interviews and oral histories – in some ways a fitting approach for a country recovering from the systematic silencing of women's voices. All of the women tell their stories of horrific murder, abuse, and oppression without shedding a tear – many give their testimony with the flat affect of the shell-shocked. But when one speaks of her future, her desperate wish to study, she begins to weep. Her past haunts her, yes, but the agony of thwarted hope is somehow even sharper. The journalists also cry as they film her, as they do with each story they hear. But after they dry their tears, they seem even more fiercely determined to resist the restrictions that they face as women filming other women.
One winds up debating a man about veiling and sharia law in public – he asserts that the chadari or burka is mandated by the Koran, and she retorts that it isn't. “Any person who is that ignorant is beyond comprehension,” she says defiantly, before noting that she refuses to wear the chadari in honor of her mother, killed by mujahideen for her outspoken views. “I am not afraid,” she says. “I am brave.”
While these moments of debate and conversational insight provide some power, the film would have benefited from featuring more of the wordless moments that can speak volumes about subjects' lives. But following women throughout their days, watching them doing things rather than just talking about them, requires a good deal of time, and patience as well – things that seem in short supply for this fired-up group of filmmakers. This first film is a fledging effort – rough but promising. Hopefully, as the journalists keep filming life in Afghanistan, they'll find a way to balance their desire to expose women's lives with the ability to wait for life to reveal less pat but more provocative messages. As is the case for Afghan women themselves, unveiling is only a start.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.