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A Conversation with Sedika Mojadidi (FACING THE DRAGON)

I met with director Sedika Mojadidi on Sunday, March 24, 2019, at the 2019 Annapolis Film Festival to discuss Facing the Dragon, her newest documentary (which I also reviewed), winner of the Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature at the fest (a jury on which I served). The movie follows two Afghan women, Nilofar (a politician) and Shakila (a journalist), as they confront and defy the patriarchal norms of their country. They each navigate the dangers of their respective journeys in different ways, with different outcomes. An effective meditation on resistance and endurance, the film offers messages of both hope and warning, for not all outcomes in the struggle for women’s rights end in victory. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Hammer to Nail: Sedika, could you talk about your own personal journey for a moment, as an Afghan immigrant returning back to Afghanistan to make the film. You briefly mention this in the movie, but could you just tell me a little bit about how you decided to go back and follow these two women and to tell this story in Afghanistan?

Sedika Mojadidi: Well, I guess my story isn’t all that different from a lot of children of immigrants who come to a new place and are always curious about the place where their parents came from. And I think because my parents came to the United States in the late 1960s, and I was born in Afghanistan but grew up in Florida, and because my parents tried very hard to not assimilate, especially after the Soviet/Afghan war in the ‘80s, I think that they became more Afghan than they probably would have been.

I think when people feel like they’ve lost their identity in terms of where it’s linked to the place where they come from, sometimes they go to the other extreme, and my family was very much like that. And so I always grew up with my parents comparing everything to Afghanistan, always looking back, and I guess I inherited that to some extent, that looking-backness. And I’d been to Afghanistan before I started working on this film. I’d been there in ‘96 and made a short film for my MFA thesis out of my experience then. And then I was there in 2003 and 2005 working on my first feature.

But I felt very unsatisfied with both those film projects, and so I think after a while I decided to go back. And for me, making films there and trying to tell stories from there, I realized at the end of this new film what that was for me and realized that it was sort of the first time I could articulate it, actually. I think this is probably not that unusual, but what I realized was that the camera has always given me a reason to put myself out there with people, and it’s always helped me to feel like I have a purpose when I’m somewhere.

And being in Afghanistan making this film, it was really about creating my own experience of the place that was not linked to my family or my parents. I would have my own experience of being there, even though the country that I came to was very different from the country my parents grew up in. But my friends and my traveling and my experiences among people, that would be mine, and it could be only mine, and I think that was very important to me at the time.

I was not originally interested in doing this kind if story; I was actually researching another story. I spent a summer interviewing people all over Kabul with a small crew. And I was doing interviews with people that I thought might be interesting, and filming in the city. And then I had to stop working on that project, and I sort of fell into this. And then I met a female politician, I did an interview with her, and I found her kind of interesting. There are 69 women in Parliament after the Americans came into the country, all these Afghan women encouraged to participate in Afghan society, right? Policewomen, and journalists, and all this rhetoric, and all this narrative about how the moral justification for the war in Afghanistan was that we were going to save Afghan women, and we were going to help them become a part of it.

HtN: Yes, because the Taliban was so horrible and that was a motivation of the Bush administration. I remember it well: we have to go save these women from the Taliban.

SM: That’s right! I mean, Laura Bush went on radio and talked about the girls and women of Afghanistan. And that platform was very consciously promoted in 2003. And it was all about Taliban atrocities against women and it justified the bombing of Afghanistan, and it justified invading, and it justified bringing all of those troops in. Though the troop numbers were not as high during the Bush administration as they were after Obama came in. But yeah, out of that there were good things that happened. A lot of women were really helped in terms of getting an education, and being placed in high level positions.

So I was interested in those women and this female politician that I interviewed. She really started to make me think, “OK, there’s this whole generation of women who get to sit at the table, so to speak, and that’s never happened in Afghan history.” I mean that doesn’t even happen in America. 69 women in Parliament based on the numbers, we don’t have that here, so I thought that’s weird, and interesting, and maybe that’s a story that I might be able to tell. And so I knew I would be following a female politician, but I wasn’t planning on following a journalist.

I started the project in 2012. I started researching, so I did interviews. I basically did casting interviews. So, I interviewed 8, 9 female politicians, Parliamentarians. And I just did long interviews with them, and I just tried to see who’s got a story, and would they give me access to that story. Because I knew right away this was going to be observational. I just felt very strongly that my way of trying to tell a different narrative was going to be about me getting so close to these women that you wouldn’t be able to separate yourself from them. It was as simple and difficult as that.

HtN: I have a follow-up question to your narrative about yourself. You were born in Afghanistan but brought to the United States as a young child. Did you grow up bilingual?

SM: I did grow up bilingual. My parents spoke Afghan Farsi at home. And so I definitely considered myself bilingual, but it’s one thing to be speaking with your family, and another thing to be working in a country. So there was definitely a big learning curve for me in terms of my language skills, and I worked really, really hard when I was in Afghanistan to improve them.

Our Chris Reed and filmmaker Sedika Mojadidi

HtN: Well, the little bit we hear of you in the film, behind the camera, sounds like you know what you’re saying and doing, at least to a non-Afghan Farsi speaker. Now, were there any concerns for your own personal safety while making this, given the fact that you are following these two contentious women? The politician seems well protected, but your journalist Shakila not so much. Did you ever have any concerns for your personal safety while making the film?

SM: I didn’t have concerns for myself, but my family did. My family was very concerned, both my family in the States and my family in Afghanistan. They didn’t really understand why I felt like I needed to do this. So it took a little convincing on my part to help them to understand that this was what I really wanted to do. Shakila definitely did not have any security, and she did some very difficult stories and went in difficult places. Nilofar had one bodyguard, even though she travels with armed police in Badakhshan. But in Kabul she keeps a very low profile.

But honestly, I wasn’t concerned for my safety when I was with them and I wasn’t scared in any of the places that I went to with them. I was scared in other places, but not with them. And I think it’s because I had just decided this was what I was going to do, and if I was afraid it was going to affect the filming, it was going to make me second-guess my decisions, and you just can’t do that. Either you’re all in or you’re not. And I also refused to be afraid of my own people in Afghanistan.

HtN: As a follow-up to that, at one point in your film you’re in an area with Afghan women who would otherwise be veiled, but they’re not veiled in front of the camera because they’re among women. Were there any concerns about showing these women out to the world in your movie, unveiled? I’m not sure how that would work for them, or if they’d ever see the film, but how did you navigate that?

SM: Well, I was very open with people when I was filming with women. So I was very conscious of making sure that everyone knew that I was making a film, and it was going to be shown in America; it was not going to be shown in Afghanistan, and we have no plans to show it in Afghanistan for obvious security reasons. And I asked them if they were OK with being on camera, or would they rather be veiled. I mean there were many scenes where I shot around women, and as you can see in some of those scenes, the schoolgirls in the opening of the film, they knew I was filming. It was announced that it was going to be shown in the West, but not in Afghanistan.

And so, you can see there are some girls that have their faces veiled, and some girls don’t. So at that point I just felt like I had been as open and as transparent as I could be. And I don’t feel like they’re in any danger. I spoke with Nilofar on many occasions about those scenes that we were in, and she did not feel that they would be in any danger. But there are scenes of Nilofar where she’s unveiled, there’s a family scene where she’s unveiled. And that’s a scene that I have made very clear to our broadcaster, PBS Doc World, cannot be used in any promotional material. And when we’ve been at festivals and they’ve asked me to promote on the Facebook pages, I have made it very clear that some of these scenes with Nilofar, and scenes of her children, some of the more intimate scenes with the family, that happen later on, that these scenes would not be used for promotion, very strictly, especially on social media.

HtN: One of the subtexts of your film is the complicity of foreign powers in the political turmoil of Afghanistan today. It dates back to the British, but this kind of constant foreign intervention, of which the Soviets and then the United States are only the most recent, was an interesting subtext, but that’s not the main thrust of your film. But did you find, as a now-American filmmaker coming in, even though you’re Afghan by origin, that you faced any pushback as a foreign journalist coming in to tell a story about Afghanistan?

SM: That is a very interesting question. The irony is that I didn’t face pushback as an American; I faced pushback as an Afghan woman. When I travel in Afghanistan, I do as a lot of documentarians do, in terms of embedding with our location, and our story, and people. So, I speak Farsi, my parents were very traditional growing up, so I understand the Afghan values, and the culture, I understand how all of that stuff operates, and I’m comfortable navigating through it.

There are Afghan-Americans that I’ve seen that have gone to Afghanistan and they definitely feel like fish out of water. I felt like I was pretty good about blending, and maybe too much, because I worked very hard to not talk about my American side. And so people did not take me seriously at all. None of the women took me seriously, they wouldn’t talk to me. I was treated like every other Afghan woman would be treated. As an Afghan woman with a camera, I might as well have been from another planet, because you just don’t see that there. And those things were very, very difficult, because I started to realize that the foreign women that came into the country actually got way more access than I did.

HtN: Were you actually filming it yourself? Were you the person holding the camera?

SM: Yes, I was the cinematographer on this film.

HtN: So, how are Nilofar and Shakila doing now, respectively? Shakila’s in Germany. How is her asylum application and status going? And how is Nilofar doing in Parliament?

SM: So, Shakila lives two hours outside of Frankfurt in a small town. And her asylum case was approved for only one year, so it has to be re-evaluated every year. She’s still not sure if she’s going to be able to stay in that country. And she is working now for Deutsche Welle, which is a German news agency in the Afghan Language Service. And she’s very happy to be working as a journalist again. She is doing so much better than where we leave her in the film. She’s speaking German fluently. I have no idea how she learned German. I think she’s feeling more comfortable there. And she’s been traveling for this film; she’s just right now at a festival in The Hague, Movies That Matter. So, I feel like she’s doing a lot better in terms of just getting accustomed to her new life.

And Nilofar ran for re-election last summer. She campaigned in Badakhshan, her province, and she won her seat. So that was a huge victory for her, and then she still goes back and forth and stays with her children in Australia over her breaks. And she now is back in Kabul and she’s waiting for Parliament to open, and I would say she is in the same place where we leave her in the film. I would say she still feels very ambivalent about the decisions that she’s made.

HtN: And you leave her on that hilltop. It’s a very melancholy ending, but it fits your story.

SM: Yes, the mountain scene. She goes hiking on Fridays in that area, and that scene was something that I thought of because I went hiking with her. We went with some friends, and I thought, “Well, she’s really isolated now, this is the only place where she can kind of be outside, and she gets to be by herself, and she’s away from her kids and everything.” So, I felt hopefully that that scene told the visual story of where she was, and that she was kind of suspended.

HtN: Well, I think it works, as does your film. Congratulations on it, I think it’s a really beautiful, brave piece of filmmaking, and I wish you all good things with it.

SM: Thank you!

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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