Heart of the matter
Nilofer Bakhtyar (The Friday Times)
The March of the Penguins, a French documentary about emperor penguins’ journey to their breeding ground, has become the second most successful documentary in US box office history after Micheal Moore’s Fahrenhiet 9/11 and is giving Hollywood films a run for their money. The huge popularity of reality shows such as The Apprentice and American Idol points to an increasing hunger of the worldwide audience for real human drama. Mehreen Jabbar’s Beauty Parlour and Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Paani, privately screened for sizable audiences in Pakistan , proves how global this phenomenon is.
A recent entrant to the small but distinguished company of avant garde filmmakers is Samar Minallah, whose debut documentary Swara (2003) was chosen to form part of Amnesty International’s archive of films: it was also screened at various film festivals abroad and at the World Social Forum in Mumbai , India in 2003. An anthropologist with an MPhil in Social Anthropology and Development from the University of Cambridge , Samar says that it was her exposure the art of ethnographic filmmaking at Cambridge that made her realize that her true passion lay in creating films.
“Ethnographic filmmaking basically means that an anthropologist is ‘embedded’ in the society that is being studied. Instead of approaching the subject of research with preconceived notions, researchers are encouraged to become part of the community before analyzing its various aspects,” explains Samar at her office in Islamabad , as we discuss her latest project Where the Heart Lies.
While studying this aspect of anthropology, Samar realized that her true calling lies in filmmaking, with particular emphasis on Pashtun society—culture to which she belongs by virtue of birth. “Although I spent most of my formative years in either Peshawar or Islamabad since my father was in the bureaucracy, I did not have an elitist upbringing because I was constantly heading back to my family village in Hazara in the Frontier Province ,” she says.
Her exposure to more than just city life together with the fact that she would often accompany her father on his tours to the inner most recesses of the Frontier, created in her an insatiable appetite for all things Pashtun.
Although a lot of material is available on the Pakhtuns—courtesy the British Raj, whose romance with the Frontier and doomed attempts to bring Afghanistan under their control spawned a gamut of books on the tribes and traditions of the men of the Frontier province virtually nothing was written on the women of this proud race.
Samar Minallah is attempting to redress this imbalance with her second documentary, which deals exclusively with the plight of refugee Afghan women. Where the Heart Lies or Dar pa Dar which is its Pashtu title, is a heart rending account of the state of women refugees at the Sheendand Refugee Camp in Kohat. “I was in Peshawar when the events of 9/11 took place and was touched by the images that the US media created about the incident ; but no less of a tragedy was unfolding before my eyes and nobody in the international media cared to look this way, “ remarks Samar. She describes the deluge of patients that arrived in Peshawar when Tora Bora caves were bombed. “A huge number of the injured and displaced were women and children; the scale of tragedy was as bad as the days of the Soviet occupation, when Afghan refugees first came pouring into the country,” she recalls.
With no language or cultural barriers to impede her, Samar decided to film the plight of these women, many of whom were being brought into Pakistani hospitals in a state of unconsciousness and who, after receiving medical aid, woke up to the realization that their families back home had been wiped out in the bombing. One scene in the documentary shows a relatively young Afghan woman holding up an artificial limb to replace the leg she lost during the Allied attacks. She tells Samar who is filming her that she has to use appendage carefully lest it break, since she cannot afford another and that the carpenter whom she showed the leg had said that only the doctor could fix it if it ever broke.
Samar interviews another Afghan refugee woman who explains that since her entire family was killed in the raids in her village, she has nobody left to call her own. This woman now teaches the Quran to the children of the refugee camp and the footage shows her wrapping up the holy quran with loving care as though she were handling her own child. “People in the West do not understand when there is an incident concerning the desecration of the Holy Quran,” explains Samar . “This film shows how people who are left with nothing cling to the little that they can still call their own—be it their holy book or the remains of their loved ones who have not survived—in order to make the journey back home.”
The emotional trauma of refugees does not end with their repatriation since many do not want to leave behind loved ones who are buried in Pakistani soil. “I approached a man who was loading his family and belongings on a truck before heading back to Afghanistan . Naturally, I thought that this would be the happiest day of his life, but the man burst out in tears,” recalls Samar . “He said that he was heartbroken because he was forced to leave behind his mother, who had died before they could be repatriated.
Pashtun men never break down in public or betray anything but fierce courage and pride, so you can imagine the trauma that this man was experiencing”.
Another poignant moment captured by Samar is of two elderly women who have been left destitute and without a family, and who refuse to be repatriated because, in the worlds of one of the women: “my son is buried here. I will never leave because I have nothing to go back to. If I die I want to be buried next to my son”. The poverty-stricken woman could not afford to take her son’s body to Afghanistan for burial and Samar recounts how two months after the filming of the documentary, this woman passed away and is now buried next to her son, just as she had wished.
“ Afghanistan is a tragedy that continues to unfold with each passing day, especially for these women refugees. Brought up to regard purdah as a means of security and protection, many of them now feel utterly vulnerable because they have been driven out of their homes that were their sanctuary from the outside world,” explains Samar . Unlike her debut documentary Swara, which she made primarily for the Pakhtun audience so that they could understand the trauma underpinning the custom of giving away minor girls to settle murder disputes, Where the Heart lies has been made with the Western audience in mind. “9/11 is still etched in the hearts and minds of people abroad, but with this film I want to show how much more the Afghan people-especially the women—continue to suffer because in any war, anywhere in the world, the victims are voiceless”.
Swara created quite an impact and continues to be screened in the Frontier Province, “One of the women in the film who became swara when she was a young girl and who as a grown woman was awaiting her inevitable fate of being handed over to the avenging tribe, is no longer living under this dark cloud; the man t whom she was promised changed his mind after watching the documentary and witnessing the suffering of women who become victim to this barbaric tradition,” Samar tells me with evident pride.
The activist filmmaker has not only filed a petition to ban swara, which will be taken up by the Supreme Court in due course, but has also persuaded truck and rickshaw wallahs to paint slogans on their vehicles discouraging this prevalent practice.
The young filmmaker is keen that audiences in Pakistan embrace the concept of socially relevant documentaries. “One person can move mountains, especially in the information age when a film can be viewed by anyone living anywhere in the world. That is empowerment. That is the way forward.” Asserts the soft spoken crusader with the camera.