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Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2002

An exile's return to reality

N iloufar Pazira may by the first actress I've ever met who claims to have no interest in appearing in another film -- for her, acting was simply a means to an end. A journalist and documentary filmmaker, the 28-year-old Afghan exile had been living in Canada for a decade when she decided to brave the journey back to Kabul in 1998. An old friend, unable to bear life under the Taliban, had been sending her increasingly desperate letters, and Pazira sought to give her hope. When the Taliban refused her a visa (as a working woman and journalist, that was hardly surprising) she asked Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose earlier film "The Cyclist" had been sympathetic to the plight of Afghan refugees, to accompany her and shoot a documentary.

News photo
Niloufar Pazira, recently in Tokyo

Makhmalbaf was unable to help her at the time (sensing the great risk involved), but galvanized by her story, he decided to film a thinly fictionalized version of it, set around the border refugee village of Niatak. Pazira was cast as herself, in her first -- and probably last -- turn as an actress.

In Tokyo on a grueling press tour, Pazira spoke with The Japan Times at length on the making of the film. The folk dress she wore for the camera was obviously there to present a different view of Afghani women than the burqa, but -- as she readily admits -- "When I lived in Kabul, my friends would have laughed if I wore something like this. We all wore jeans back then."

Have you found that the reaction to the film is inextricably tied up with what has happened in the world since Sept. 11?

Yeah, absolutely. I think it's accurate to say that before the events in America, there was not much interest in Afghanistan. I remember in Cannes (spring 2001), when we'd be asked about the film, both the director and I made a conscious decision to use this as an opportunity to talk about Afghanistan. And generally speaking, reporters were not interested. They were more interested in the composition of the film, the art itself and the characters, than its relation to the tragedy in Afghanistan.

So many reviewers refer to the scene with the artificial legs falling from the sky as "surreal," yet it didn't strike me as surreal so much as tragic. It's strange to see people aestheticize it and sort of distance themselves from reacting to the scene for what it was.

There's so much concentration on that, on how Makhmalbaf tried so hard to create surreal images of Afghanistan, the beauty of the film. And I remember being so disappointed and frustrated, saying, "Look, we did not try to exaggerate anything about Afghanistan. We wanted to show the pain as we saw it. Whatever came out as surreal, it's not that we tried to create it."

In Afghanistan, you'll see things that make you stop for a moment: Men who have lost legs, they use the wooden stick of a shovel tied to their body to be able to walk. For people coming from the West, this is a surreal image, but for those who live on the ground, with that kind of disability, that's their reality. They survive in one way or another.

Judging from the conditions in which you shot the film, it seems like you couldn't ignore it, or detach yourself from it.

I mean, think about it: I went there to make a film about Afghanistan, to show the misery of this country. And I arrive in the village, and I say to these people, "Oh, we're here to make a film about your stories," and they looked at me strangely, and I thought, what's wrong? Then I discovered, they don't even know what film is!

The best way that it worked was to let the place and the encounters shape the film, rather than the other way around. It would be impossible, anyway, to get these people -- nonprofessionals, refugees -- to follow a written script.

What was the most difficult aspect of the shoot?

On a personal level, the most difficult thing was the difficulty of dealing with a culture I consider partly my own. I felt so frustrated, like "What is wrong with these people?" That was my first reaction and the hardest thing. Because on one hand, these are the people you love, because you see their misery and their problems, and you see their innocence. And on the other hand, you want them to be a little different. But how can you make a difference without taking away the essence of what they are? I kept saying to myself, I look at this village, and it reminds me of our past, in a collective sense as human beings. We were so primitive, so innocent, and so lost in a way, stuck in a limited worldview.

That's very clear in that scene in the madrassa, where the boys are taught only the Koran and the Kalashnikov -- that's essentially brainwashing.

What we tried to depict in that Taliban school is ideology put together with arms. The result, of course, is destruction. The schooling of young people in Afghanistan, traditionally, has always been in mosques, where they just memorize a lot of phrases from the Koran -- without understanding it, because Afghans don't speak Arabic, of course. And girls were never sent to these schools.

So the Taliban revived this traditional style of teaching, but this time it was militarized. For those people in the refugee camps who were so destitute, this became the new attraction to them. Aside from the economic factor -- it provided food and clothes, sort of like a boarding school -- it also gave a sense of purpose to these people.

And that's when I saw the failure of the world. Imagine if, in the past 20 years, we had concentrated just on the education of Afghan children, refugees who live in Iran and Pakistan. One, we would not have had these Taliban schools succeeding in attracting any of these people. Secondly, we would now have a generation of Afghan teenagers who could fill the vacuum. But right now, we have no one. I mean, why do we have the recycling of all the same old guys at the top? Because they are members of the older generation who have had some kind of education. After that, there's a gap.

How did you feel about wearing the burqa in the film?

I first wore it when I left Afghanistan. When you leave the country, you find a guide to direct you: what to wear and what to say when you go through the checkpoints. So we dressed as rural people and wore burqas as a disguise -- if we were discovered as city people, we would have been put in prison by the government. So at that time, the burqa was just a tool for me, a tool for escape.

But for the film, the first time I wore the burqa, I absolutely hated it. Because, by then, it had become a symbol of repression to me. I felt it was hard to breathe in it, I couldn't walk, I could barely see. I was almost hysteric, I hated it! But as the time went by, and I kept wearing it, I kind of got used to it. I almost became dependent on it, in a way.

One day, we were walking through the desert, after shooting, and there were some strangers, who were walking nearby, keeping pace with us. And I kept unconsciously pulling the burqa over my face. And then I stopped and thought, hold on, I'm in Iran, nobody is forcing me to cover my face, why am I doing this? So I pulled it back, but after a few strange looks, I covered myself again. I felt more comfortable under the cover, because I felt very insecure where I was. And it was only then that I began to understand it from the perspective of the women who wear it.

What about that scene with the girls being warned not to touch dolls they might find. Why would someone make a bomb that looks like a toy?

Mm-hmm. This is guerrilla warfare. I have no idea what could go through the mind of a person to want to produce something so destructive targeted at children. But they did. And it was part of the reality of our lives, every day, to avoid touching toys. And people there were so deprived, children there would run to take it. So it was purposely designed to destroy a child's life.

But this is how the military mind works: They don't think about who they are destroying, just how they can achieve their goals. I mean, OK, 10 years from now, ask someone sane, what is the idea with "bombs and bread"? What kind of logic is that?

By last account, there were over 10 million unexploded mines and bombs in Afghanistan. Some figures go as high as 25 million. And the wrongdoing of the world is, instead of disarming the country, again, they're re-arming it.

Well, it's the export of this American belief that equates the right to bear arms with "freedom." Never mind that the people now receiving the arms devastated Kabul after the Soviets left . . .

Actually, I feel very strongly that there is a conscious effort, on the part of the North American media, to wipe out any history that points in an uncomfortable direction. So there is no discussion about the past rule of the Northern Alliance. They became the forces of goodness because they fought for America. And everyone opposed to them is reduced to being "evil." But it's clearly not that simple.

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