Cinema Asian America: David Edwards on Making ‘Kabul Transit’

by | February 18, 2012 at 10:34 AM | Cinema Asian America, Xfinity On Demand

"Kabul Transit" is available on XFINITY On Demand.

Kabul Transit” presents a look at a city steeped in infamy. Once a cosmopolitan and progressive city, it is today a city emerging from two decades of war, filled with a generation that has seen nothing but destruction. This masterful documentary by first-time filmmakers David Edwards, Dr. Maliha Zulfacar, and Gregory Whitmore offers panoramic views of the city, as if filmed by an everyman on the streets of Kabul. The Film Society of Lincoln Center called it “a mosaic of images and experiences that convey the sorrow, black humor, irony, and surprising hope that can exist in the most untenable of situations.” Intrigued? You should be. This gem is available this month through Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand, and we spoke with filmmaker David Edwards.

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“Kabul Transit” is made in a very specific way: it is observational, does not attempt to contextualize or explain what we see, and is built around creating an experiential encounter for the audience. Tell us about how you determined this approach, and why it was fitting for looking at the city of Kabul. In the wake of September 11 and the US attack against the Taliban, journalists invaded Afghanistan and brought with them their conventional style of telling a story for television audiences. I had spent many years studying Afghanistan, and watching these reports, I was aware of how little these correspondents knew and how much they pretended to know about the complexities of Afghan society. In contemplating making a film on Afghanistan, one of my precepts was that however it was done on television news, I wanted us to do the opposite. In the place of a simplifying story, I wanted complexity; in place of the all too familiar-looking and confidently-speaking on camera narrator there to mediate and soften the reality of a strange place, I wanted our audience to feel uncomfortable, to have to find its footing on unfamiliar ground.

With this precept in mind, we decided to begin the film on a hillside overlooking Kabul, where a bunch of young people were flying kites. Our goal was not to provide a “Kite Runner”-like picturesque locale, but rather to make our audience feel a little dislocated: where are we, who are these people, what’s this game they’re playing, what connects them, who are those children? I am an anthropologist, and in some sense, I wanted the audience to experience what an anthropologist experiences when he or she arrives unannounced in a foreign country – a stranger in a strange land – and has to get their bearings and begin to piece together the social realities of the place they have come to inhabit.

The truth is that Afghanistan is a complicated place, and Kabul is in some ways the sum of those complexities. It is also a broken city, and anyone who claims to understand it or who would pretend to summarize what is going on there, especially in an hour or an hour and a half-long film, is either a fool or a charlatan. What we wanted to do was to present side-by-side some of the realities that we noticed, realities that exist for different people occupying adjacent social worlds in the confined space of the city. We knew that our portrait could never be complete, and that it would be fundamentally dishonest to try to give the impression of completeness or any other summary judgment. So instead, we decided to go in the opposite direction, embracing uncertainty and emphasizing the lived experience of being in this city and to sacrifice what most documentaries provide, perhaps disingenuously, namely the more distanced sense of meaning – in other words, the conceit that we know how all of this goes together and what it all signifies.

There is a great diversity of places and subjects documented in the film and it has been described as “a shifting mosaic of encounters and raconteurs.” From young, female students at Kabul University, to Canadian soldiers, to local money changers, what guided you to your subjects? Were your choices research-based, or did you follow your eyes, ears, instincts while in Kabul? Mostly, we followed our instincts. Maliha is a native of Kabul, so she had many contacts, the most important of which, for the purposes of the film, were centered around Kabul University. The female students you see in the film were Maliha’s students in a course she was simultaneously teaching during the time when we were shooting the film. The money changer was also one of her students (and is himself now an instructor at Kabul University). I had also spent two years as an English teacher in Kabul before the Soviet invasion. It was because of that experience that I developed an abiding interest in Afghanistan and decided to go to graduate school in anthropology with the plan of returning to study Afghan culture in more depth. However, the war intervened, and I ended up spending two years, just over the border in Peshawar, Pakistan, doing PhD research among Afghan refugees. One of those refugees, a man by the name of Shahmahmood Miakhel, served as my research assistant, and many years later, he became the Deputy Minister of Interior in the Karzai government. He is the official we see in his office speaking to the man who wants to sell him fire equipment and with whom we drive to the Minister’s press conference. He also put us in touch with the Canadians whose base we visit in the course of the film and with whom we go on patrol. That’s more or less how the film evolved, one contact leading to another to another. In the course of three months of shooting, we produced 150 hours of footage, so the film contains a small percentage of the total. Some of these scenes made it onto the DVD as extras, but many did not.

Throughout the filming process, we really were just “making it up as we went along,” availing ourselves of opportunities that presented themselves, following leads and hoping for the best. As a result, the shooting stage of making the film was exhilarating. From one day to the next, we never knew what we would be doing or what we would discover. But there was a price to be paid: when we returned home, we had a pile of mini-DV tapes that had to logged and organized. We had no script, no main characters, no plot. All we had were a bunch of “scenes” or collections of shots taken at more or less the same time and place, but that had no real or imagined connection to one another. So the burden came in the editing, and at first, the challenge overwhelmed us. We were inexperienced filmmakers, and for a long time, it looked as though the film would never be completed. Greg and I spent about six months trying to work with the material, but we gave up. I worked with two other editors to construct some sort of film, but was unhappy with the results. Finally, almost two years after we started the project, Greg and I reconnected and started talking about the film. We had both been away from it for a while, and suddenly we got energized and inspired, and in the space of 2-3 very intense months working 12-15 hour days, figured out a way to edit and structure the film. It remains something of a mystery why the pieces started falling into place, but one of the keys, I think, was music. We knew that we didn’t want to use a narrator, but we needed something else to provide structure and emotional energy to the film, and I remember that Greg had found an instrumental track by the guitarist, Chet Atkins, and we started editing the footage of our tour of the Canadian military base to that song, and it was working, helping us find a rhythm and humor that had been missing before. As it turns out, that track never made it into the final version of the film (because of rights issues), but from that point on, music was central to how we approached each scene and the film as a whole.

The film has three co-producers, and you are all from quite different, but complementary backgrounds. Please tell us a bit about how you came to collaborate, and how you collaborated to make the film. In the winter of 2001, I was asked to help preserve an archive of photographs and videos shot during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The archive was located in Pakistan, and I needed technical help to evaluate the archive and come up with a plan for preserving the material. I teach at Williams College, where Greg Whitmore was a student. Greg was never a student in any of my classes, but a mutual friend of ours told me about Greg, and we talked about the archive project. Right away, I had the feeling that Greg could be a tremendous help on the project. We traveled together in the spring of 2001 to Pakistan, checked out the archive, and together we put together a plan to digitize a big part of this archive. We brought three Afghans who worked at the archive in Pakistan to the Williams campus that summer, and in the course of two months, we digitized 300 hours of video and 2,000 photographs. The September 11 attacks happened just after we finished the first stage of this project, and one small footnote of the attacks was that this archive that we’d helped preserve was suddenly much more relevant than it had been a few months earlier when we began this project. The New York Times ran an article on the archive project in the week before the US attacked Afghanistan; that led to a request from the Asia Society to mount a show in their gallery of material from the archive; this led to a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York; and this was the seed money with which we financed Kabul Transit. So my relationship with Greg began with this archive project, and it continues to this day, as we are currently revamping our Afghan archival website and, this summer, will be launching an online magazine devoted to Afghanistan.

One thing that many people have noted about Kabul Transit is its beauty, and the credit for that goes to Greg. Greg is an exceptionally skilled photographer, and his approach to video reflects this background, especially in the stillness and patience of his camerawork. When we first arrived in Kabul to begin shooting the footage that would be used in Kabul Transit, I wondered if the fact that Greg did not speak the local language would adversely affect his ability to work in this environment. What I discovered is that, in some respects at least, it helped. Either despite or because of not knowing specifically what people were talking about, Greg paid attention to body language and the physical presence of people. It sounds somewhat “New Age-y”, but Greg seemed to have an uncanny ability to respond to the energy in whatever place we were working in, and I became convinced that knowing more language might have been a distraction and caused him to miss shots that had nothing to do with language but everything to do with what was really going on in a particular place and interaction.

I got to know Maliha because, prior to September 11, 2001, there were relatively few scholars working on Afghanistan, and we all eventually got to know one another. Maliha is a sociologist who also was conducting research on Afghanistan, so we saw each other at a few conferences. I also knew that she was interested in film and had made some short videos in Afghanistan, and in 2002, we started talking about a possible collaboration. We both managed to get sabbaticals from our respective schools and were able to work together in Kabul during the production stage of making the film. While in Kabul, we stayed in the house that Maliha’s family had occupied for several generations and where she had grown up. When her family fled Kabul after the communists came to power, the house had been taken over by the secret police (KHAD) and had served as a prison for all of the various regimes that had come to power in Kabul between 1979 and 2003. The walls of one of the buildings on the property were still covered with graffiti left behind by the prisoners, which was sufficiently disturbing and spooky that we organized an Afghan-style exorcism of the building just before we left.

As we watch this film in 2012, nine years after it was made, ten years into the war in Afghanistan, as the US prepares to extricate itself from the country, and enter into talks with the Taliban, what observations do you have about the film as we watch it? In retrospect, one advantage to not using narration is that the film is less time-bound. Many, maybe most, documentaries have a relatively short shelf life because they are connected directly or indirectly to the “news cycle.” We intentionally went for something different with “Kabul Transit”. We wanted to detach it from the news and from the immediacy of whatever specific events were current at the time. Instead, we wanted it to be a portrait of a city that is simultaneously caught up in a frenetic, helter-skelter present and tied to patterns and rhythms embedded deeply in the past. In talking or writing about Afghanistan (or the Balkans or sub-Saharan Africa, or other places that have been embroiled in civil conflicts), Western commentators fall into the cliché that the country in question is beset by ancient, primordial enmities, the implication being that these people are somehow primitive and pre-rational. I mean something else: that Kabul is a place where the past is very present, in the ancient walls that snake up the sides of the hills that bisect the city, in the twisting streets of the Old City, in the markets and the mix of peoples whose ancestors mostly all came from somewhere else: India, Persia, Central Asia and beyond. Most documentaries are caught up in the here and now of events. We wanted to capture, even in a fleeting way, the sense of a city that has been here for a very long time and that will still be here long after we had left.

One of my personal favorite documentary films is Dziga Vertov’s “The Man with a Movie Camera”, which presents an amazing portrait of the early Soviet city (it’s a composite of a number of different cities that Vertov weaves together) circa 1929. Vertov’s style of filmmaking, while influential for its technical achievements, represents to me the road not taken in cinema as far as editing and structure go. In thinking about what kind of film I wanted us to make, one idea I had in my head was that the film could be a kind of tribute to and reflection on Vertov’s film, for while Vertov was caught up in the early revolutionary optimism of the new Soviet society (pre-Stalin, pre-purges, pre-gulags), we were filming a city that was, arguably, the other end of the line. Vertov’s city was the city of the future. The Kabul we were filming was, on one hand, a city of the past and, on another, the last Soviet city, the furthest reach of Soviet ambition. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, they were acknowledging, whether they recognized it yet or not, the failure of the whole Soviet project based on that early revolutionary vision. Within a few months of the withdrawal, the Soviet Union collapsed, but the effect of that thwarted, ultimately misshapen ambition was still visible all around us in Kabul, which is what we were trying to signal in the final scene of “Kabul Transit” shot in the former Soviet Cultural Center. So our perhaps overly ambitious goal was to make a film that would bookend Vertov’s, at the same time paying homage to him and his achievement, while also recognizing the destructiveness of the utopian vision that had animated that early, classic film.

Beyond this, and more prosaically, we wanted to capture in “Kabul Transit” our own sense of the mood and feel of the city. Even as far back as 2003, the mood was ominous. Already, there were plenty of signs that whatever the coalition forces were trying wasn’t working out the way it was supposed to, and while we didn’t want to editorialize, we did want the film to reflect what we were seeing and feeling around us. In particular, we wanted to capture the increasing sense among the Afghans we were with of the disconnect they felt in their relations with the new wave of foreigners – Americans, Canadians, French, Germans, etc. – who had taken up residence among them and who seemed to have no sense of or really interest in Afghans or Afghan culture. The foreigners, for their part, and despite the good intentions of many of them, were mostly clueless, and most of them were buttoned up tight behind razor wire and concrete protection in their compounds. Every day, and on the most basic level, we were confronted with the disjuncture between Afghans in their light cotton shalwar-kamez and cheap plastic sandals and the foreigners in their body armour and Oakley sun glasses. Such elemental differences create enormous and widening gulfs between sides, and the animosity that one reads about now – stories of Afghan soldiers shooting their NATO trainers, for example – have their genesis in this sort of everyday, experiential divide. Again, while we didn’t want to editorialize, we did want to capture this sense of disconnect, and it was for this reason that we decided to give the last spoken words in the film to the Canadian major who tells us, as we ride through the streets of the city, returning to his base, that “Afghanistan isn’t clear in my head.” In those words were expressed the reality that policymakers even now have not fully admitted to themselves and that have ended up costing many thousands of lives and billions of dollars as a result.