My filmmaking is a form of protest against conflict, injustice and human rights abuses

The filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky photographed by Inzajeano Latif
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Saeed Taji Farouky

Dear Saeed and Michael, first of all congratulations on winning this year’s Berlinale Amnesty International Award. Your documentary film “Tell Spring Not to Come This Year”, which is about Afghan soldiers in the province of Helmand, reminds the audience of an almost forgotten war zone. Can you tell us about the beginning of your common project?

Saeed: Hello guys, thanks for the support, I really appreciate it. My involvement with the project began when Mike approached me, through a mutual friend, to ask me to help him make this film. He had worked with the Afghan Army for 9 months in Helmand, and when he was finished with his contract he thought to himself that what he was seeing – and the entire Afghan perspective – would make an important and compelling documentary because it was a perspective than no one was seeing. Mike and I have a mutual friend, she was a former student of mine in a short workshop on filmmaking I took part in a few years ago, and Mike asked her who she would recommend to make this film with him, and she recommended me. So after discussing the film for a few weeks, and making sure we both had the same ideas about what sort of film we wanted to make, we agreed to co-direct the film.

From my perspective, I’d been trying to make a film about Afghanistan since the early years of the war, but I work very slowly. I don’t like to make the same film that everyone else is making, and I prefer to take the time to look at a situation from a distance before I start making a film. I look at what everyone else is doing and ask myself “what’s missing? What story are we not seeing in this narrative?” And of course the invasion of Afghanistan is one of the news stories that I believe will define this generation, so it was clear I had to address it in some way, but how? When Mike approached me, I could clearly see this was an opportunity to both challenge the mainstream media representation of the war almost exclusively from the perspective of the occupiers, and to tell an honest, compelling and human story that few people had seen before.

Michael: Having worked very closely with members of the Afghan forces during my deployment to Helmand province as a Dari and Pashto-speaking liaison officer, I was fortunate enough to have been granted a window into their world for a period. When following the media coverage surrounding Afghanistan on my return however, it became apparent that whilst many journalists were covering stories concerning the Afghan Army, most would talk about Afghan soldiers, and rarely with them. To hear an Afghan soldier on Western TV speaking for himself seemed relatively uncommon. As a result, stereotypes such as the fact that Afghan soldiers were all “lazy”, “corrupt”, “drug-addicted”, “untrustworthy” and “uncommitted to serving their country” were often prominent in the mainstream media. Of course there were instances of these phenomena, yet from my experience working with the Afghan Army, these stereotypes were unrepresentative of the full story. Given this experience, I was keen to portray the war from their perspectives, yet was initially unsure about the best way to achieve this. In the end, documentary film seemed to me to be the most effective means, and having no experience in the field myself, I was fortunate enough to find Saeed, who brought his filmmaking expertise to the access I had with the soldiers, and in the process also taught me how to film, sound record, and edit.

You were embedded for more than a year with the 3rd Brigade of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and were attacked by the Taliban several times; soldiers were wounded or lost their lives. How is it possible for a film director and a cameraman to block out the potential danger to your own life?

Saeed: I think there are two parts to this answer. The first is that, as a filmmaker in a conflict zone, you need to have a very practical understanding of and acceptance of the dangers. You need to assess what you’re going to do and ask yourself very honestly “am I willing to die for this?” I would never work on a film if the answer to this question is “no”. When I risk my life, I do it for films that I think are unique and that can have an impact. But in order to make that decision, you need to ask a lot of questions. What are the real dangers? What could be the consequences? Could me or the people I love deal with those consequences?  Do I trust the people I’m working with or filming? Once you’ve come to accept that risk, the focus should then be on making the best film possible under those circumstances.

The second part of the answer sounds like a cliché, but it’s true that looking through a camera lens gives you a false sense of security. It’s quite easy, with enough experience, to feel quite cut off from the reality around you when you’re filming. Too much of this is a bad thing, of course, for understandable reasons, but I think to make a film in a war zone requires that remove, in a very delicate balance, in order to simply function. If you want to make good, visually compelling films and not just messy camera news footage, then it takes even more focus despite the chaos around you. For me, the more I focus on the filmmaking - without losing my perspective or humanity - the more I’m able to remove myself from the immediate dangers.

Michael: For me personally, I suppose having had experience of similar situations in Helmand prior to filming allowed me to understand the logistics of when it was safe to film, and when it wasn’t. I wouldn’t say however that blocking out the fear of potential dangers is recommended – in my opinion fear and instinct can be useful in recognizing your limits, so long as you can control them.

I don’t think you really dwell too much on potential dangers to your life when you’re in the moment though, perhaps in a logical manner you think about it, but less so from an emotional perspective. That’s usually something that happens before or after. But everyone is different, that’s just me.

During this year, have you formed friendships with the soldiers and the indigenous population that still exist?

Saeed: Despite the language barrier, I’d have to say yes, I think of many of those people we filmed with as friends. I eventually learned enough Dari to communicate with them, some of them also spoke some English and some of them spoke Arabic. Whenever I make a film, the people in the film are collaborators; they have to feel invested in the project as well as the filmmakers, because without them there’s no film. I don’t believe in the approach of parachuting in to a war zone, pretending you’re the master of the situation, and leaving while trying to pretend you were never there. To make a real, intense, humanist film requires an understanding between the filmmaker and the people being filmed to cooperate and collaborate on the film. We are mutually exploiting each other - hopefully in a good way but often, with irresponsible filmmakers, in a bad way. It’s a delicate balance. You don’t want your friendship with the people to cloud your ability to tell an honest story, but you also don’t want to remain so removed that they’re always strangers.

Of course spending a year with someone, eating together, sleeping in the same room, experiencing those intense moments together, spending 24 hours a day together is going to create friendships, and many of the people we filmed are now my friends on Facebook so it’s an ongoing friendship. We keep them updated about what’s happening with the film, where their story is going, and they keep us updated on their lives and the situation in their war.

Michael: I am still in touch with at least a dozen of those whom we filmed with. I speak on the phone with Jalaluddin, the unit commander and a one of my closest friends, usually every fortnight.

How long does the preparation of a documentary film usually take? How long was the preparation of “Tell Spring Not to Come This Year”?  What difficulties did you have to deal with?

Saeed: It really depends on the film, but typically with my films I spend about a year preparing for a film, either doing research, finding references, developing the story or arranging access and logistics. For “Tell Spring”, we had a unique pre-production challenge which was getting permission to embed directly with the ANA. It was a new process at the time so there were a lot of speed bumps along the way - NATO and the ANA were unsure of who was responsible for what, for example. It took us 7 months to arrange the paperwork. But at the same time, our timeline to prepare was compressed because we knew we wanted to film for a year, and we knew we wanted that year to end around the end of NATO’s mission, and we knew we wanted the film to come out as close to the end of NATO’s mission as possible, so October 2013 was quite important as a start date. We prepared as much as we could, but of course in a war you’re dealing with the most unpredictable situation in the world, so there’s only so much you can prepare for before you simply have to jump in and start filming.

Michael: On the one hand, you could argue that this film took over a year and a half to prepare, as that’s how long I spent getting to know the men who would eventually be a part of the film when I was working as a liaison officer. But then in terms of time spent from conception to starting production, it was around seven months. In actual fact, getting permissions from the Afghan Ministry of Defense was relatively straightforward, and only took a day in Kabul. However, conducting a proper recce, gathering our thoughts, and attempting – usually failing, in the early stages – to find funding certainly took time.

The title “Tell Spring Not to Come This Year” is quite poetical, but also describes the fear of an uncertain and dangerous future. Do you think that the war between the ANA and the resurgent Taliban forces is a hopeless situation?

Saeed: The poem comes from an Afghan poet called Khalilullah Khalili, it was a poem chosen by Jalaluddin, one of the film’s main characters. The poem was written about the Soviet occupation and refers to Spring in the Persian calendar which is the new year. The poem laments the fact that there is so much blood being spilled, and the country is not ready for a new year, for renewal, for rebirth, while there is still so much death around. It seemed like a fitting sentiment for the film, a desperation for renewal in the middle of so much chaos and violence. There is NATO’s idea of renewal, which is a war, and there is Afghanistan’s idea of renewal, which is peace. Unfortunately the two are not the same vision.

I don’t think the situation in Afghanistan is hopeless, but I do think the war as it’s being fought now is hopeless. And in fact the war was hopeless from the beginning. The insurgency is driven by an ideology; it can’t be defeated like a traditional army. The war, since the invasion of 2001, has been fought as though it’s a war for territory against an army, essentially World War I tactics. They are ludicrous in the face of an insurgency, and those tactics result in much more civilian death, destruction and alienation than any strategic victory. Even NATO’s concept of imposing democracy through an invasion and occupation is fundamentally perverse, and now sadly the ANA has been formed in the vision of NATO so they continue that war. As we’ve seen elsewhere, a war against an ideology is a never-ending war.

Michael:  I wouldn’t quite describe it as hopeless. The phrase more often used (most often by military commanders themselves) is “mowing the lawn”. Meaning that the Afghan security forces can “clear” a geographic area of insurgents, but it won’t be long before they have to return and conduct an identical operation in the same area. NATO faced an identical problem. This is largely because neither they, nor any other traditionally structured army is trained or equipped to deal with the root causes of the insurgency, which are not military, but rather social, political and economic. The military does have a role to play, but in a counter-insurgency it’s role should be a supporting, not a leading or dominant one. Unfortunately in Afghanistan, this was not the case for the most part.

You took some impressive footage. The Afghan landscape overshadowed by war and the individual fates of the soldiers leave a deep impression to the audience. Has there been an unforgettable moment or experience for you?

Saeed: Thanks very much, I appreciate your compliments. Of course it’s tragic that the images are of such death and destruction, but I hope at least they can succeed in stirring viewers’ emotions, to connect to the people on screen and to understand, on a human level, the consequences of war.

I’m sorry, but I’m finding it impossible to mention one unforgettable moment! There were so many, and I find many of them impossible to describe in words.  But, in general, I can say that the thing I found most surprising about the ANA, the thing that will always stick with me, was how much all the soldiers laugh with each other, even in the middle of such horror and suffering.

Michael: For me, the most unforgettable moments were usually those moments when the situation seemed at its most dire, yet we were still able to share a joke with the soldiers we were filming with. In the end, they became less subjects, and more just friends. No matter how hard you try to go in with impartial values, it is impossible not to become part of the group in such intense situations. As such, while this is certainly not a one-sided ‘propaganda’ film for the Afghan army, as I hope anyone who has seen the film will attest to, I would not call it a work of objective journalism either. It is entirely subjective, the only important point being that we have tried as best as we can to make it subjective from the point of view of those in the film, rather than from our own perspective (in as far as that is possible of course). There are opinions in the film which neither I, nor Saeed agree with, but we felt it important to include them nonetheless, as we see it very much as a window into their lives.

Can art make the world a better place and is making a documentary film your personal weapon, your way, to fight for justice and human rights?

Saeed: My filmmaking is a form of protest against conflict, injustice and human rights abuses. It’s also a form of protest against the failure of mainstream journalism to do its duty and fully examine the consequences of wars with rigour, scepticism and compassion. It’s a protest against the demand for instant, short, shallow representation and the colonial, even racist approach that still pervades so much Western journalism and documentary filmmaking. Of course different people have different forms of protest - my films are not a political form of activism, because what I’m concerned with more than anything else is telling a compelling, human, compassionate story that audiences can connect to and - through connecting - understand something very basic about the lives of people living with war, human rights abuses and injustice. I don’t set out to make a film to affect political change, but if this happens as a result of my films of course that’s a positive result. I want to tell simple stories so that most audiences don’t even realize the radical approach of the film. So in this sense it is a weapon against the mainstream, mainly “Western” representation of war as something that happens “over there” to “other people”, inconsequential until one of “our own” is killed. I want to challenge this approach as much as possible.

But my films are not intended to “make the world a better place.” If they become a step in that process, that’s great, but I don’t set out to make a film that preaches a moral lesson. This is too simplistic and generally makes for very poor, unoriginal filmmaking. My films are complex, subtle, often with no right or wrong and no easy answer. They’re not “educational” films, but again if someone learns something from watching them that’s a positive side-effect. I’m more interested in making films that are challenging and thought-provoking.

Michael: I see art as neither a force for good, nor bad. It is what it is. A tool, which can be bent whichever way, the creator, or sometimes the interpreter wishes. Personally, I seek to use documentary as a means to help people understand each other better, to see the world from another’s perspective. But I think it’s important not to try and convince audiences of a certain standpoint. Usually, people don’t react well to that which is forced upon them. I think strong films often interrogate issues, yet leave the audience to decide for themselves. At the end of the day, art, and film can inform and allow audiences to interrogate their own opinions, but film in itself cannot change anything in a practical sense. You can watch an excellent film on the effects of climate change, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will change your behavior. It is people that must ultimately act on what they have learned through art.

Thank you for the interview, it was a real pleasure and we wish you every success in the future.

This interview was conducted by Safiye Can and Hakan Akçit, May 2015