In this exclusive interview to ADN, the Canadian / Afghan director Ariel Snar speaks about his film “Boxing girls from Kabul”. He is also pushing international doc-makers to do more docs about Afghanistan and to work with emerging local film makers.
. Could you introduce yourself ?
I’ve been making films for about six years. After studying history, believing that I was preparing for an academic career, I had a life crisis during which I began making films. In a sense, I fell back on films.
At that point in my life I was unable to write or think normally and so I began using images to communicate and express myself. After this crisis moment, I had a hard time finishing my undergraduate degree, but I scraped through, and as soon as I had, I began working as a video editor, while making my own films on the side.
My work as a director and producer has focused almost exclusively on Afghanistan, including the two films I have directed for the National Film Board of Canada, “Good Morning Kandahar” and “The Boxing Girls of Kabul” as well as my early short film “My Fathers are a Foreign Country”, and a beautiful dramatic film I recently produced with director Sam French, called “Buzkashi Boys”.
. Do you live in Afghanistan or outside ?
I am a member of the Afghan diaspora, which constitutes one of the world’s largest populations of refugees. Most of my family, like many families was forced to leave Afghanistan as a result of decades of war and unrest. I was born and raised in Canada, and only began visiting Afghanistan in the last decade, after yearning to see my father’s country since childhood.
In 2008 I moved to Kabul, where I lived until spring 2012. I’ve been back in Canada since March 2012, but anticipate a return to Afghanistan this fall. Since Afghanistan is the country of my father, I have a deep bond with the place and people. But my actual experience with the country is limited to the past decade and the current conflict.
. Can you speak about your doc film “The Boxing Girls of Kabul”?
For me, the film was not about boxing, but about observing the lives of young women in Kabul. Often in the west, people debate whether women in Afghanistan have been “liberated” by the international coalition, or discuss the relative state of women’s rights in the country. I wanted to add a level of complexity to this debate by asking viewers to simply sit and spend an hour observing the lives of real Afghan women who are trying to do something outside of the cultural norm. As a friend recently said to me after a screening of this film, as documentary film makers we are in favor of complexity, and should shy away from simple answers.
. How did you found the story ?
In 2007 I was doing research for another film about Afghanistan and I happened to come across a news article about the boxing team. Instantly fascinated, I tracked down one of the team’s founders—Kanishka Nawabi, the executive director for an Afghan NGO called Cooperation for Peace and Unity (CPAU). Kanishka was enthusiastic about the idea of making a documentary and wanted to help.
In 2008, I moved to Afghanistan and continued researching the film from there. But there were a number of obstacles that needed to be cleared away before I could start shooting. I had the support of the NGO that had given birth to the team, but it was impossible to achieve the kind of access I needed without the additional support of the Olympic Committee of Afghanistan, the Afghan Boxing Federation, the coach of the boxing team and, most importantly, the girls and their families. I spent many months building a relationship with the team and all of the other organizations involved. Over time, I was lucky enough to gain the trust of all parties and I slowly began to shoot the film.
. Did you shoot in Afghanistan ? Did you had trouble to shoot there ? How long did you shoot and edit ?
What you see in the film took place over approximately one year, though I was shooting on and off for perhaps a year and a half, mostly in Kabul, Afghanistan. The edit took between three and four months. There were many complications and difficulties associated with shooting in Afghanistan. I never felt that making this film put my life in danger. But of course if you live in Afghanistan for long enough you are eventually confronted by the war. I always try to keep in mind that whatever I experienced there, pales in comparison to what Kabul has been through in the past.
. How did you get the funding and support from National Film Board of Canada ? Did you have other International partners?
The National Film Board (NFB) is not a funding body for film-makers, but a producer of documentary films (as well as animation). So instead of simply granting funds, they work with directors to produce films, similarly to any production company. I have a working relationship with an NFB producer, Annette Clarke, and together we pitch film ideas, which go through a rigorous process of selection. The process is broken down into stages of research, development, and finally production. Although the NFB does partner with international organizations on occasion, this film was entirely an NFB production.
. Is it only for TV? You haven’t done a theatrical version ?
The film is just winding up it’s festival run (including Hot Docs in Toronto where it picked up the Inspirit Foundation Pluralism Prize), and will have limited theatrical release in Montreal. But most people who see the film will watch it on one of the TV stations that acquired it: France Televisions, NHK (japan), TV5 (Quebec), InDemand (US), 24DOC (Russia), DBS (Isael), KBS (Korea), and Latin America Pan Regional TV.
. Will you be able to show the film in Afghanistan ?
The film will not be broadcast in Afghanistan due to concerns about the safety of the film’s subjects.
. The film has been sold to broadcasters in many countries such as the US, French Canada, Latin America, Israel , France, Russia, Korea and Japan. Did you expect a so great distribution ?
I will use the National Film Board’s response: “In addition to the NFB being a producer we also are a distributer and sell international rights on some of our slate. Our distribution dept. saw something in the film that would appeal to international audiences. So this is not by accident. It was strategic industry practice.”
. Do you have new doc project in or about Afghanistan ?
Yes I am currently editing an experimental documentary about Afghanistan’s capital city, called “People of the 21st Century”. I aim to show the beauty and complexity of the place in a way that helps dispel some of the myths we Westerners hold about Afghanistan.
I am also finalizing an interactive documentary with the National Film Board of Canada (called “Portraits of Kabul”). It should be ready this fall.
. Are you looking for Asian or International partners for your experimental doc about Kabul ? will you have again the support of NFB Canada on this project ?
“People of the 21st Century” is an independent project. So far, the funding has come from the Canada Council for the Arts, but I will be looking for finishing funds later this year. On all projects I am looking for partners wherever they may be. I would encourage it.
I am always looking for new partners to help realize great films. I also hope to have a long and productive relationship with the NFB. Film projects are selected by the NFB on a case by case basis. I have been very fortunate to have the support of the NFB up to this point.
. After these 2 project about Kabul, do you have another doc project ?
After “People of the 21st Century”, and the interactive documentary “Portraits of Kabul”, I do not have any firm commitments. I am currently discussing another film in Afghanistan, but it is only in the earliest stages. I am always looking for new collaborations and connections with other filmmakers.
. Is it still possible to make doc in Afghanistan ? Are there independent doc makers (producers or directors) ?
Afghanistan does have many talented film-makers, and the film industry there is developing all the time with new film academies and programs for young film makers. I myself co-founded a small NGO to help develop young film makers, called the Afghan Film Project, and there are other organizations that do the same. It is to be hoped that one day Afghanistan will have a vibrant and thriving film industry. Certainly there is an appetite in the country for home-grown films.
International film makers who want to make documentaries in Afghanistan should think about forming partnerships with Afghan film-makers. This will help develop the Afghan film industry as well as resulting in better, more informed film-making.
. What do you think about the evolution of the Asian documentary industry?
Many of the best documentaries in the world are made in Asia, by Asian film-makers. Documentary has no boundaries. It is about perspectives. When people from across the world share perspectives with each other in a meaningful way, it can change the way they think about each other and result in lasting change.
. In the last 2 years, have you seen any Asian documentaries or docs about Asia which impressed you?
Perhaps the Asian documentary that has impressed me the most in recent years is “Planet of Snail”, which I saw at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam last fall. It does what I believe documentaries do best: takes us into another person’s world and shows us our shared humanity.
Interview by mail on 6 August 2012