‘Frame By Frame’ profiles Afghan photojournalists at Aspen Filmfest
If You Go …
What: ‘Frame By Frame’ at Aspen Filmfest
When: Monday, Sept. 28, noon
Where: Isis Theater
How much: $15 GA; $12 Aspen Film members
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenfilm.org
The Taliban outlawed photography when it ruled Afghanistan. When the regime fell in 2001, a revolution in photojournalism took hold. The documentary “Frame by Frame,” which screens today at Aspen Filmfest, profiles four photographers leading the country into its new era of free press.
“We hope that people are able to see Afghanistan in ways that they haven’t before,” said Alexandria Bombach, who co-directed the film with Mo Scarpelli.
Bombach, a 2008 Fort Lewis College graduate who lived in Durango for five years, made her first trip to Afghanistan in 2012 to meet a handful of photographers for what she thought would be a short film.
“I thought it was going to be a short film, but after going through their interviews, it was pretty obvious that it needed to be a feature,” she said.
She and Scarpelli filmed through 2013, funded in part by a successful $70,000 Kickstarter campaign (and by Bombach selling her car). They sought to portray an Afghanistan through the eyes of local photographers, beyond Westerners’ notions of it as a war-torn battlefield.
“I was used to seeing Afghanistan through the lens of mainstream media, which is suicide bombs and complete destruction,” she said. “So, seeing people walk down the street and laugh and drink tea made me feel a responsibility as a filmmaker and insatiably curious to go.”
The brave and talented photographers in this urgent, visually striking film document a multifaceted Afghanistan, covering events such as peace concerts and elections and subjects such as drug addiction and self-immolation and women’s rights.
Farzana Wahidy focuses her work on Afghan women, constantly negotiating threats from hard-liners who still believe women should not be photographed. Even appearing in the film posed a safety risk for Wahidy, Bombach said.
“As soon as she heard it was going to be three men, she got on board,” Bombach said. “She wasn’t going to stand for that.”
Wahidy’s husband, Massoud Hossaini, won a Pulitzer Prize for a 2012 photo of a bombing at a religious procession. The film shows him grappling uneasily with the attention brought on by the photo and visiting with the family of one of its subjects.
Najibullah Musafar speaks of photography as a moral calling in today’s Afghanistan.
“If a country is without photography — without historic, artistic and cultural photos — that country is, in fact, without identity,” he says early on in the film.
The filmmakers follow Wakil Kohsar as he meets and photographs heroin addicts. He searches out subjects with an activist’s eye, aiming to inspire social progress.
“I’m certain that a photo can lead to change; it will lead to change,” he says in the film.
The climactic scene comes in a burn unit, as Wahidy attempts to negotiate her way into a hospital in Herat, which has the country’s highest reported rates of self-immolation. A doctor rebuffs her, citing fear of retaliation from the local mullah if photos of women are released.
“It’s so complex,” Bombach said of the scene. “At times, you feel the doctor is right. At times, you’re rooting for Farzana. At times, you don’t know if he’s telling the truth or not. … We put it in there because we want people to see that this is a complex thing and Farzana deals with those complications every day.”
The past 10 years have been a revolutionary time for photojournalism in the country, and the subjects of “Frame by Frame” are cautiously optimistic about its future. Hossaini, for instance, talks about this era as a window of opportunity to work freely, expressing fear that the Taliban or warlords may take control again and roll back freedom of the press.
Current President Ashraf Ghani, elected in 2014 after “Frame by Frame” was completed, has vowed support for freedom of the press. Yet violence against journalists has risen.
“It’s definitely become less secure since we were there,” Bombach said. “All of the international bureaus that had houses there, they shut down. Troops left. International aid is going other places, because the eyes of the world aren’t on Afghanistan.”
Throughout the country’s history, she noted, repressive regimes have taken power in the vacuum left after foreign invaders leave.
“This has happened time and time again with Afghanistan,” Bombach said. “It has a history of being forgotten. And that’s when these things happen.”
“Frame y Frame” premiered earlier this year at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and has won multiple awards on the festival circuit since then. It plays at noon today at the Isis Theater.
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