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Candid camera shooting Afghani women

Jul 11, 2009

Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan-Canadian filmmaker tries to find out men and women’s relationship with the camera that alternates between fear, wariness, curiosity, courtship or all of these. She locates this uneasiness in the Afghan society's conservative social mores, writes V. Radhika.

Toronto: It was not supposed to be a film. But as Afghan-Canadian journalist and filmmaker Nelofer Pazira followed the threads of a subject that propped up so persistently, a film unravelled, frame by frame and the documentary Audition announced itself.

One of the over 171 documentaries screened at the Hot Docs International documentary festival in Toronto in May, Audition looks at how images (photographs and films) are seen in Afghanistan and in the process throws up questions; ignites debates; and challenges commonly-held perceptions under the camera's lingering and non-judgmental gaze.

Pazira, whose family fled Afghanistan in 1989 to Pakistan, moved to Canada in 1990 but has returned to Afghanistan several times as a filmmaker.

It was one such trip in 2006 that birthed Audition, a 57-minute film subtitled in English and Farsi and shot in Bamiyan and Kabul.

Pazira was in Bamiyan to screen The Giant Buddhas‚ a documentary about the destruction of the Buddha statues by the Taliban.

Impressed by the 2,000-odd turnout, many of whom lined up to shake hands with her after the screening, she took up their invitation to visit their university dormitories and homes.

Reactions of men and women

She says: "For years, when I have been travelling in Afghanistan, I had observed the reaction of men and women to the presence of a camera and had been curious about it. But here, the subject found me again.

"As I met with villagers and visited cave dwellers, I realised that most of them hadn't seen a film before, some had never been photographed. I talked to them about their concerns, fears and their curiosity about film and pictures. Step-by-step, I learnt about them, as they found their comfortable positions in front of my camera."

These visits unfold as Pazira 'auditions' amateur actors for a film. Though pleased at the deluge of respondents, the negligible presence of women in this group goaded her to seek them out, to understand their relationship with the camera that alternates between fear, wariness, curiosity, courtship or all of these responses.

This also led to discussions with the male auditioners on their views about women's participation and representation in images: in cinema and photographs.

As this journey plays out in the film, the camera swirls from being an external object to an item of curiosity and then a witness, provoking a debate about its role and presence. While many women are ambivalent, most men object not only to women auditioning but also to their being on camera itself.

Pazira locates this objection in the society's conservative social mores and primarily in the absence of cinema in Afghanistan.

"It is a very complicated issue. To begin with, there were not many women in film in Afghanistan. Some women in the 1950s and 1960s sang under pseudonyms."

When women used to dance and sing

"In the 1980s, a lot of women were singing and dancing on TV. But serious cinema has not developed in Afghanistan. There are theatres but they screen Hollywood and Bollywood movies. The idea of cinema is new and regarding photographs they go back to religion and say it is against it.

"When I challenge them about where and how, they have a hard time explaining it. So, for a lot of them it is an inherited notion. The response is a combination of religion and culture, topped with an ignorance of the medium."

Some women spoke about this on camera. An elderly woman, a resident of one of the caves that dot Bamiyan, said: "It is our men who do not want us to be photographed. They say, 'We don't like it'. They say nobody should take pictures [of women] and show it on foreign TV. They are like Taliban: always want women to be under [the control of] men. Afghan women are under a lot of stress. It is not easy."

Interestingly, Pazira says that a lot of men – students and amateur actors from lower and middle classes in Bamiyan and Kabul – expressed comfort with women's representation on camera as long as it was appropriate and they were dressed properly.

These twin concerns – stemming from nudity (Hollywood) and song and dance routine (Bollywood) that the Afghans watch in the name of cinema – might perhaps be addressed with a local, home grown cinema and Pazira is hopeful of change.

Attitudes will take time to change

"The society is conservative and it will take time to change. People are concerned about being judged negatively by their family/ community. A lot of people I spoke with were okay with it personally, but did not want to go against the stream of the community," she says.

All these men, however, had no compunctions in taking pictures with Pazira or working with her, an Afghan woman! She avers it could be partly because she is an outsider whose family lives abroad and are, therefore, "immune to the community. So, they do not feel the same obligation as they feel towards sisters/cousins."

However, she adds that they also shared a lot of common ground (she speaks their language, understands their history) and did not face any discrimination except during heated discussions when they were surprised that she "speaks back."

As a woman filmmaker based in the West, Pazira treads the gender minefield of a conservative society cautiously. How does she do this? Says Pazira: "In the eastern culture, one must find a right balance especially when most of the team are men. I want to be the person in charge, but to be in charge one must know how to lead. You cannot lead well by using force, it has to be a respectful relation."

Entering the women's world, however, seems to come effortlessly to her. In Audition, the women, however guarded in the beginning, relax visibly as the filmmaker chats them up. Their shared identity of gender helps break barriers and gradually the camera metamorphoses from being an intruder to a guest and then an observer, as conversations unfold and their initial resistance melts into curiosity. Some even develop a relationship with the camera.

While the entire journey has been interesting for Pazira, her favourite scene is when one of the girls starts crying as part of the audition and does not stop (some Kabul girls/ women have acting experience).

Says Pazira: "It puts into question whether she's crying for real. I do raise that with her, she never confirms. Some argue that she's just a great actor. Others think she was crying out of desperation. It's open to interpretation."

Raising questions

It is this aspect of filmmaking – raising and asking questions – that Pazira seeks to establish through her work.

"I never seek to answer. I think that's the work of the audience. The responsibility of a filmmaker is to point at various directions and raise questions. Let people be the judge and figure out for themselves the answers," she says.

Pazira's next film, which she is currently editing, is a drama focusing on relationships. "It is set in a small village in Afghanistan and it explores the relations of new and old, war and post-war conflicts and western and eastern encounters. At the heart of it, it is a love story," she explains.

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