How did you meet Ajmal, the journalist, translator and "fixer" featured in your film?
Well, I first went to Iraq to make a film called 'Occupation: Dreamland.' At that time, I had no experience working in war zones, so I asked journalist friends of mine advice and the first thing they said was, get a good fixer, someone who has good street credibility and connections, because they can save you. I then went on a research trip to Afghanistan with (producer) Christian Parenti, and it was during that trip that I met Ajmal. The idea at that point was to focus on the interaction between a journalist (Christian) and a fixer (Ajmal) and through their story we would see the bigger picture of Afghanistan five years after 9/11. It was after that initial trip, as I was in the process of raising money for that film that Ajmal was kidnapped and later killed.
Initially, the idea of using this man's death as a dramatic device seemed really distasteful to me. He had become a friend of ours. But when I looked at the footage and saw all this material we had of Ajmal, I felt an obligation to go back and tell his story.
To the average American, the US intervention in Afghanistan is in many ways about 9/11. That is what triggered it. Al-Qaeda did have safe haven with the Taliban. But in many ways the United States stepped into a war that has been going on between various governments in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, for about thirty years.
I first arrived in Afghanistan years before when I was reporting for The Nation. I was intrigued by what was going on there, and it was in that context that I met Ajmal and later stayed at his guest house. As things turned out, it was sad and surreal to be investigating the death of a man who had become a friend, and who I had worked so closely with less than a year earlier.
The history of Afghanistan, its wars and its people is confusing to many. What did your time there reveal to each of you about the larger story of that region?
The conflict in Afghanistan is confusing, and the people that suffer the consequences often get lost in the headlines. I thought if you could see the war from one human perspective then maybe it would be a way to see how it affects human beings and not simply as some abstract international conflict. Ajmal was caught up in a very specific web of history and power, and he was killed at a very specific time and place. My goal was to try to evoke this web of history and power while never losing sight of the man.
To the average American, the US intervention in Afghanistan is in many ways about 9/11. That is what triggered it. Al-Qaeda did have safe haven with the Taliban. But in many ways the United States stepped into a war that has been going on between various governments in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, for about thirty years. After the Communist coup, the Pashtun militias in Afghanistan became the Mujahideen, which the United States facilitated and funded along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to fight the Soviets.
But you can even go even further back than that to an almost hundred-year-long war between the cities of Afghanistan and the rural elites, between the landlords and the Mullahs of the countryside who felt like the landlords wanted to impose the writ of Kabul over the countryside. Today, many of the Taliban's commanders are these same kind of rural landlords who do not want to submit to the government. Their discourse is that this is Jihad against foreigners, which, in their minds, it is. But on another level, it's just an old, old fight where they are not going to give in to Kabul.
Another aspect of the war is that the Pashtun are the majority group in Afghanistan. They live mostly in the south and are opposed to other ethnic groups like the Tajiks, the Hazaras and the Uzbeks, who live in the north. And so there's a north-south split that is part of an ongoing war that pre-dates the American involvement in Afghanistan.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
I hope they get a sense of the complications of Afghan society without being confused by those complications. And I hope they'll get a palpable sense of how Afghan society operates in a person-to-person, day-to-day level, and that people will think more critically about the use of military power and will be more critical of war as a method. I hope they'll see that war has horrible consequences, not only for the people who are injured and killed, but for all the people connected to them who love them. And the sadness that produces. I hope that people will realize that every country in the world is complicated, and that we should think twice if politicians are offering us only simple military-based solutions.
I think for the vast majority of Americans, these wars are so abstract that there's no real sense of the human consequences. My hope is that by looking at this war from one perspective, to be able to see the cost on this one family, this one man, that maybe it can help give a human face to the conflict. And I hope the film can disabuse people of the far too simplistic idea that the Iraq war was the "bad" war and Afghanistan is the "good" one. This conflict we've gotten ourselves into is going to have far-reaching consequences and it's not going to be something easily solved. Unfortunately, I don't have the answer, but I do hope this film can be part of the dialogue.
2009 Documentary Films Series