Writing for Impact & Social Change
IN 2002 DIRECTOR PHIL GRABSKY DOCUMENTED THE LIFE of one ordinary family in central Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in his film, The Boy who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The center of his film was one year in the life of the young boy Mir, an engaging 8-year old who resides with his family among the caves and mountains of Bamiyan. But the story did not end there.
Ten years later, Grabsky returned to document the next ten years with Mir. The film is screening now in the U.S. and Europe. I asked Phil through an email interview what it was like to do a “sequel” of sorts to Mir’s story.
The Activist Writer: Why did you decide to do a follow-up to your first film?
Phil Grabsky: To really get a sense of how successful our attempts have been to influence post-Taliban Afghanistan, I felt that I had to spend more than one year following the story. It seemed to make sense to spend ten – though there were many times I regretted the decision. You would imagine raising funds for such an important story would be straightforward- but, believe me, my knees are still sore from all the begging to broadcasters.
TAW: What changes did you notice in Mir as you chronicled his life?
PG: The obvious change is a physical one but there was also, as I anticipated, a gradual swing from innocence to experience. But I had no idea, of course, as I followed his story just how he would or would not change. In many ways, what has impressed me is how consistent he has been in terms of humour, intelligence, fortitude and application. He certainly learnt how to speak up for himself though. I feel he offers an optimistic view of the Afghan potential; the sadness is he still lacks any real hope of achieving the heights he is clearly capable of. Then again, that’s where the responsible film-maker intervenes after the shooting has stopped.
TAW:Did you have an idea of the shape of the film when you went back? Were there scenes you wish you could have included, but didn’t make the final cut?
PG: It was both scary and exciting to not know how the story would develop. I never had any idea for shoot to shoot what had happened or would happen. I had my intuitive ideas of course but in Afghanistan anything is possible. I, and my Afghan colleague, were extremely lucky to gain the access we did and capture the scenes we did. Highly experienced, long-term travellers and visitors to Afghanistan say they have never seen inside an Afghan family in this way—even in real life. There are, of course, scenes we cut out—perhaps the one I regret is Mir’s participation in the national horse-rising sport of Buzkashi. It is wild! But it’s good to have a few deleted scenes for the DVD extras!
TAW: How do you think viewers will react to this latest chapter in Mir’s life?
PG: I know already: they are moved, amused, shocked and enthralled. Anyone who isn’t probably ate too much popcorn and fell asleep.
TAW: On the film’s website, you include a link for how viewers can support the people of Afghanistan through charity programs. How much responsibility do artists, and documentary filmmakers, have to help their subjects? Do you consider yourself an “activist”?
PG: I come down firmly on the side that we owe a moral responsibility to our characters. On a human level, how can one walk away from such poverty. You can’t hide behind the ‘I’m bringing your story to the world’ line…What you actually do that is tangible is a personal matter but, for our part, we helped Mir, the family, the school and the community as a whole. It’s not a question of interfering and doing too much. It’s a question of not doing enough. Am I an activist? How can you make documentaries of any value on any subject if you are not. I want to educate people so that their decisions are better-informed. The ignorance about Afghanistan and Afghans is shocking: I actively want everyone to see this film. I am not shoving my politics down your throat, and indeed the film shows that the story is a myriad of greys, no black & whites here. But we are spending billions and suffering horrible casualties—how can you not want to know more? And what better way than a film which is funny, beautiful and moving?
Special thanks to Phil Grabsky for his time, and to Francesca Hendry at Seventh Art Productions. Watch the trailer for The Boy Mir here: