The Fruit of our Labor: Afghan Perspectives in Film is a series of short documentaries offering a corrective to Western-centric accounts of life in Afghanistan. Focusing on issues of social and economic development, as documented and told by Afghans themselves, the films work to puncture typical mainstream perspectives centered on conflict, corruption and humanitarian relief. As such, they present intimate glimpses into routine struggles of employment, education and health and of accomplishments and failings at the level of community and infrastructure.
The ten documentaries, produced by Michael Sheridan for Community Supported Film, are available to watch online until 7 October, the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan. They are also currently being screened in cities across America and have just been released on DVD. American audiences to date, observes Sheridan, have been “dumbstruck” by seeing a side of Afghanistan --- the everyday life, difficulties and opinions of its citizens --- routinely hidden in the view of the mainstream media. Indeed, for some, the films are simply unbelievable, given how removed they are from the national portrait painted by CNN, MSNBC and FOX.
In Searching for a Path, for example, director Reza Sehal captures two days in the life of a street vendor in Kabul. Selling bananas from a pushcart, the vendor reflects on the absence of employment opportunities and the insecurities of his current living. Routinely harassed and moved on by police, and, unlike some others, unable to pay bribes, he faces daily uncertainty over how much he can sell of his all-too-perishable goods. More than anything, he wishes for a different future for his children, willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that theirs is a life of “school and education” with all the opportunities that offers.
The necessity of education for future development forms the focus of both ‘L’ is for Light, ‘D’ is for Darkness and Knocking on Time’s Door. The latter film interviews a former Mujahedin fighter who, upon returning to his village, Kohdaman, led efforts there to build a school, in his new role as head of the local Community Development Council. ‘L’ is for Light tackles the question of gender and social barriers to schooling, following Waseema as she tries to ensure that the girls of her village are not blocked from attending her makeshift classroom by their male relatives. She meets with the local Mullah, whose words of support give the film its title: by encouraging “families toward education and religion....They will take distance from the darkness and see the light ahead".
The films are the product of an intensive filmmaking course, run in Afghanistan by producer Sheridan, who had come to Afghanistan in 2009 seeking to direct a documentary of his own. However, as he was embedded with a counter-insurgency unit, he found overwhelming restrictions on access to Afghans, particularly in rural parts of the country. So he re-thought his project. Drawing on his experience teaching film in Indonesia, Michael worked directly with locals, training them in film-making practices and then inviting them to work on the feature documentary. Integrating a bottom-up solution within the filmmaking process, he hoped the outcome would better reflect issues of economic and social development from Afghan perspectives.
The "West", as a lens framing the spectator’s encounter with Afghanistan, is notably absent from the documentaries. When three women discuss their personal difficulties with disability in Bearing the Weight or when, in Water Ways, villagers describe the respective absence or availability of water, we are primarily watching the expression of local problems. As seen in Hands of Health, with the difficulties in building and staffing a maternity clinic, the films present situations whose solution lies in the empowerment of local communities to discuss, decide, and develop together.
Working with the Killid Group and drawing on his own network of contacts, Sheridan began an outreach program canvassing for trainees across Afghanistan. Whilst a background in some form of storytelling was important, no previous filmmaking experience was deemed necessary. Around 70 Afghans applied, of which 38 were interviewed and 10 were ultimately selected. Sheridan tried to ensure that the ethnic makeup of the trainees mirrored the diversity of the country. Indeed, the participants themselves found the training to be an instructive and novel coming-together of otherwise fragmented groups.
The breadth of the initial canvassing also ensured a nearly-equal gender divide. Whilst this can be observed in the films’ concern with issues affecting women, it is notable that several male trainees chose to document female struggles. In Baqir Tawakoli’s Beyond Fatigue, we are witnesses to the incredible resilience of a woman who cares for her sick mother-in-law whilst both working as a teacher and a machinist after school, and yet still finds the strength to carry her young son between appointments. The Road Above, by Aqeela Rezai, spends time with Mona, who works as a laborer to support her family following the disappearance of her husband, sick with heroin addiction. In contrast, Treasure Trove, by Fakhria Ibrahimi, captures both the banal and intimate exchanges between women in a bakery, as they joke about their husbands and complain about day-to-day annoyances.
Whilst there was an overarching wish for the documentaries to tell stories about issues related to development, their content emerged organically from the training, according to Sheridan. Over five weeks, the participants were given practical instruction and advice, with the final fortnight devoted to making the documentaries. Just seven weeks after the start of the course, a screening of the films was held in Kabul. The screening highlighted the potential of the project to provoke public discussions related to development issues, whether in demonstrating positive and successful aspects, or in bringing particular difficulties to the fore. It also helped demonstrate the vital role that community driven film can play in developing a strong public sphere, whilst equally revealing the current absence of a contemporary documentary culture in Afghanistan.
Death to the Camera, which closes The Fruit of Our Labor, not only pulls together the multifarious themes running across the documentaries --- particularly of labor, gender, ethnicity and aid --- but it actually questions the medium of documentary itself. Director Sayed Qasem Hossaini films a group of women at work, letting them voice their frustrations and cynicism towards their respective situations. The tenor of the film then shifts. A man accuses one of the women of being a prostitute for appearing before the camera. An argument ensues off-camera, before the woman returns to speak forth her grievances to the group. The discussion then develops into a spirited exchange, with accusations of ethnic discrimination made against their bosses. The camera crew eventually pulls away, taking us with them. If it wasn’t apparent already, this retreat makes explicit the distance between audience and documentary subject. Moreover, it raises the question of mediation central to this whole project: are we watching actuality or simply seeing something shaped and framed by those behind the lens?
Community Supported Film is currently working to expand the project into something far more sustainable, involving a long-term engagement to develop the necessary infrastructure and training. The filmmakers who made The Fruit of Our Labor are now working on a featurelength documentary with Sheridan --- Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War --- a film told from the perspective of Afghan villagers about “the impact of outsiders coming into their communities trying to help them”. Alongside this, Community Supported Film is hoping to acquire the resources to replicate the project in countriess like Haiti.
The films can be viewed online until 7 October via the Community Supported Film website.