Director Tanaz Eshagian Describes Filming in a Country in Transition
HBO: How did you get started on this topic?
Tanaz Eshaghian: [HBO Documentaries President] Sheila Nevins instigated doing something in Afghanistan. She had read an article about a girl and a boy who had eloped and tried to get to Iran to start a life together. But they were caught, brought back to their village and beheaded with the backing of their families. I did some research to see how we could get at the same kind of issues, women falling in love and getting in trouble for it. I found a clip about this woman's prison in Kabul.
HBO: What were the logistics involved in trying to shoot inside the prison?
Tanaz Eshaghian: Total chaos. Every day we wondered: "What law are we going to run into that was just created five minutes ago?"
HBO: Is the legal system that fluid?
Tanaz Eshaghian: It's a country in transition. The girls would get different sentences depending which judge they went in front of. Each judge has his own authority, but they all have the basic understanding of Islamic family law and Sharia law, where you can't be with a woman you're not married to who isn't your sister or mother. A woman can't be with a man who's not her brother, her father or husband. All that is understood ? there's no fluidity when it comes to that.
HBO: How hard was it to convince people to let you film?
Tanaz Eshaghian: The judges kept denying me access so that didn't work out. The prison allows journalists and is quite proud of it; it's very state of the art and modern. It was the guards that gave me a hard time. Half the time they were trying to get rid of you, even with official permission. You never knew how they would react and the best you could ask for was to be let in for three or four hours. But never two days in a row.
HBO: How did you select the three women that became the subjects of your film?
Tanaz Eshaghian: I was looking for girls who had not been sentenced yet. There were 10 to15 girls waiting to go before the judge and amongst those, it came down to which girls were open to talking and being in front of the camera. I think I found the most modern girls in the whole country.
HBO: How is it, even among fellow detainees, there always seems to be the presumption of guilt?
Tanaz Eshaghian: It's so conservative that if you have managed to end up there, they think you have managed to transgress somehow.
HBO: What is it that compels a parent to have his own children arrested ? or killed?
Tanaz Eshaghian: In Sabereh's case, he's such a simple guy. He opens the closet and sees a guy with his daughter. It's beyond the limit of comprehension, so he calls for help, the police. Then he realized the situation he created.
With honor killings, when everyone knows your son or daughter has run away, it's the only thing you can do to hold your face up high again, especially if you're from the rural Pashtun area. Otherwise you have to be ashamed that you're the family with that daughter.
HBO: "A bad husband is better than no husband" is a common refrain. Is marriage the only option for women?
Tanaz Eshaghian: You have to get married. If not, it's considered really sad.
HBO: How does divorce work in that society?
Tanaz Eshaghian: Divorce is incredibly rare. I was really shocked Aleema was divorced. She told me her mother forced the divorce so she could get her married again and collect another dowry.
HBO: What surprised you the most as you were following the women?
Tanaz Eshaghian: That Kareema called the cops because she believed this was the one way to survive. Everything is so moral, she knows if she gets him to marry her, the judge might let her go. If he doesn't marry her, she's screwed anyway. It's not a gamble.
HBO: How did the women in the prison react to you?
Tanaz Eshaghian: Most of the prisoners really took to me. They liked the attention. In survival cultures, they don't put much time into how you're feeling. It's, "What's going to happen? What do I have to do next?" It was pleasant for them to be around someone who was just relating to their humanity, "How do you feel? What do you think?"
HBO: How do you stay objective?
Tanaz Eshaghian: I'm always empathizing. But the most I can do is to show the logic at play and the way the system operates.
HBO: Have any of the women been able to see the film?
Tanaz Eshaghian: No, it won't be showing in Afghanistan. There will always be a really traditional uncle who will think, "It wasn't bad enough you did this, you went on TV?"