I have faith in the here and now and in the ‘innate goodness’ of most people, no matter where they are from or where they live: I don’t see the world in “us and them” terms – now it’s only ‘us’ –Filmmaker Meena Nanji.
Director Meena Nanji has been working in film/video for the last ten years. She is known for her experimental film work, which has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, Center for Asian American Media, Women in Film Foundation, the American Film Institute and others. Her work has won numerous awards and has screened at film/video festivals internationally as well as broadcast on television.
She talks with Ismaili Mail.
IM: Why did you make View From a Grain of Sand?
MN: I had been appalled by reports of what the Taliban were doing to women in the name of religion. Especially that they were denied health care because they weren’t allowed to be treated by male doctors, and no female doctors were allowed to work. So women were dying or suffering from easily curable illnesses, just because they were not allowed to get treatment. When two members of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, came to Los Angeles to speak about the conditions of women in Afghanistan, I saw how passionate and strong they were and how they were doing so much with so few resources. I really wanted to contribute somehow to that cause.
So I invited myself to see RAWA’s work in the refugee camps in NWFP Pakistan, and they agreed that I should come. I first visited RAWA and the area in November 2000. They showed me around their camps, schools, orphanages. At that time I thought I would just be making a simple piece about the Taliban, women and Rawa’s work.
RAWA also encouraged me to go and speak with other people, not connected with the group, so I met other women’s groups, journalists, politicians, even a prostitute. It became very clear that the situation was far more complex than just the Taliban: many people felt the Taliban were an anomaly; that they would implode soon enough as they had no popular support: they had only people they paid who were ‘loyal’ to them. Most people were afraid of the return of the ‘warlords’: Massoud, Rabbani, Sayyaf, Hekmatyar, Dostum, – these were the people most feared. So that was when I decided to do a film that would encompass the history of the last thirty years, and focus on the rights of women.
IM: What challenges did you face as a female? in general?
MN: I don’t think I encountered many specific challenges as a female. In a way, I think it might have helped, as I gained access to women’s lives, that would have been difficult, if not impossible, for a man. The biggest challenge was probably ‘mobility’ – I am used to being able to travel anywhere by myself, but in Pakistan, I HAD to have a male escort, so RAWA provided me with some fake ‘husbands’. Also, having to wear a headscarf was quite a challenge, as I am completely unused to this!
People in general were very protective of my camerawoman and myself as we were pretty much traveling ‘alone’, and this surprised people. In NWFP and Islamabad, if people assumed I was Pakistani, I did have a much harder time getting anything done – ie logistical things, like getting permits, tickets to travel, etc, but as soon as they knew I was not Pakistani, things became much easier.
In general, language was a big challenge for me. I was working with translators who did not speak English very well, (and my Dari is pretty much nil), and often my questions or the answers would be translated incorrectly, so I had to come back to LA and have everything re-translated. Communication in Kabul was also difficult as the phone system was not set up and it was very hard to find anyone. Also the lack of street addresses in Kabul (!) was difficult. Generally, people were very helpful though, and for the most part, we felt safe.
IM: How did your understanding of your faith inform your perspective?
MN: I guess I have faith in the here and now and in the ‘innate goodness’ of most people, no matter where they are from or where they live: I don’t see the world in “us and them” terms – now it’s only ‘us’. So I guess that leads me to look for commonalities, for shared visions and that’s really what I found in Afghanistan for the most part.
IM: What are your thoughts around the value put on documentary films versus traditional Hollywood movies.
MN: Well, I think documentary is unfortunately the ‘poor cousin’ of fiction, the world over. For the most part, documentaries remain second tier – perhaps because they are seen as providing fodder for television – and so people think they don’t need to go to the theater to see them – they can see them for free on TV. Yet, I do think there are so many excellent documentaries being made these days: their sophistication in production terms and in content is really great and they are not getting their due – in my view. There does seem to be a growth in documentary film festivals around the world, but I’m not sure this will translate into documentaries entering ‘the mainstream’ – which I think is a loss.
IM: Who is your documentary film making idol and why?
MN: For documentaries, a British group in the 1980’s really inspired me. They were called the Black Audio Film Collective, and made many films about race and representation in Britain at that time. There are tons of documentarians that I love, including Werner Herzog, and Isaac Julien. I just saw a brilliant film by Ellen Kuras that took her 25 years to shoot, called “Betrayal”, which has been nominated for an Oscar this year. I like films that take creative risks and present material in surprising or unusual ways, and I love solid, traditional documentaries too.
IM: What are the best parts of your career, and to what type of people would you suggest documentary film making to?
MN: The best parts are actually making the film and then seeing/experiencing/talking about the film with others. I would suggest documentary filmmaking to anyone who is really curious about things and who is perseverant on many levels!
IM: Noting that your work would have exposed you to many places, peoples and ways of living, what do you plan far into the future when you are retired?
MN: I hope to be still making films when ‘retired!’. I would also love to keep traveling – to me, this is one of the most wonderful things one can do.
IM: What do you feel are the primary short-term and long-term needs of a country like Afghanistan?
MN: In the short term, the US and international community needs to de-emphasise the military and pour money and resources into seriously rebuilding the infrastructure they have destroyed. They need to build dams, power plants, schools, the legal system, the police force. They need to support Afghan institutions so that the Afghan Constitution can be implemented and enforced. So far none of this has been done seriously or with real commitment. There is no military solution to the problems Afghanistan faces, so this needs to stop now. If the civic rebuilding was real and sincere, the hearts and minds of Afghans would be won, and the resistance, including the Taliban would have no popular support. Right now all we are contributing to is more deaths of civilians, and this is why so many Afghans oppose the US being there.
IM: There must have been people whom you met during your work – people in Afghanistan and other areas – that were inspiring. Tell us about one.
MN: There were so many people who were so inspiring, I can’t just pick one. So many women, who lived on practically nothing but still managed to bring up their kids to have decent humanistic values – this was amazing to me. Kids were incredible – so eager and hungry to learn about the world and try and improve their lives – again they had practically nothing offered to them, but grabbed whatever opportunities existed. Some NGO people were also amazing – one woman who was trying to provide psychological treatment to war victims, another who was opening a school to teach girls how to drive, another man who had a ‘mini-mobile circus’ for kids – the kids could participate in creating shows and then travel around the country performing – all this was amazing.
IM: What are you doing next?
MN: I hope to be doing a documentary about the rise of Hindu nationalism in India.
IM: How long did it take you to make this documentary?
MN: It took 5 years
IM: Thank you.