Afghanistan’s lawless tribal areas bordering Pakistan are usually off limits to journalists. But in a new remarkable documentary, My Return to the Valley of Death, friends Merwais Miakhail and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin take the journey into the notorious territory known as the Valley of Death – and into the middle of a vicious guerilla war between Taliban fighters and the United States military forces.
The film, which is produced by Off-Centre Productions and screened for the first time on Australian television on Monday, November 9, is the personal story of Merwais Miakhail, who fled the Taliban as a teenager and now lives in London. Fifteen years on, he returns to his hometown in the dangerous tribal areas on the Afghan border. The film follows Miakhail’s one-month journey back to meet relatives and his Pashtun tribe, and see how they are coping after 10 years of intense fighting between US forces and the Taliban.
Sanne Wass spoke to Iranian filmmaker Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, who filmed and directed the documentary, about the challenges of making a film in an area where kidnappings and killings are commonplace, and where cameras are associated with roadside bombers.
How did you and Merwais Miakhail decide to go on this risky journey?
I remember we were out having dinner together in London, and we were chatting about Afghanistan. His view about the Taliban and the Americans was different from what I had heard before – it was not as black and white. He recommended some books, I read them and found them really interesting. After that I suggested that we go back to Afghanistan together, and that I film his journey. He said no right away. But after a few weeks, he came back and said he might want to go.
What was your motive behind making the film?
I thought there was an untold story there. What Merwais told me in that restaurant was something totally unique. Pashtun society is not covered much in the media. They come from a tribal community and live in remote areas that are very dangerous to go to. Usually journalists don’t go there. It was an opportunity for me to be taken to the heart of Afghanistan, the stronghold of the Taliban.
The core question of the documentary is: Why is the Taliban so powerful? How come 10 years of war has only made them stronger? I hope this film gives some answers to that.
What are the complex realities you found there?
I decided to be loyal to the reality on the ground, which is not a black and white reality. The Taliban are not good or bad guys, and neither are the Americans. Most of the Afghans I talked to see the time the Taliban ruled the country as a dark age, but they sympathize with the Taliban fighters on top of the mountains, because they understand their cause. On the other hand, they see Americans as invaders, they hate them and their presence, but they are afraid of the day the Americans leave the country, because they predict a civil war. So it’s a mixture of feelings. When you ask, what is the future, what is the solution for Afghanistan, everybody stays silent – they don’t have an answer.
What’s the process of making a film in a place like this? How did you prepare for it?
It’s not easy. It’s the most dangerous province in Afghanistan. But I believe that my decision was not a reckless one. I totally disagree with those who think they should just take a camera and go to a war zone and make a film and that’s the way to do it. We spent months and months on pre-production research before going there. We checked with tribes that said we could come as their guests and that we would be protected by the tribe. We were flexible and ready for the complexity of that society, and we agreed on words, gestures and so on. I grew a beard and learned a few words.
What camera did you use?
Our camera was a DSLR. The camera itself is small. The shoulder rig we had was very flexible, so you could have it handheld and you could put it on the shoulder. So we had flexibility. In busy locations, like the shots on the streets and the shots where people were killed, those are handhold, because it’s quite a risky situation where you don’t have time to assemble the whole kit. But when it’s more stable and we felt safer, we put the kit together. So it depended on the situation.
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Gaining the trust of the people. It’s a society that, if you take your camera out and start filming on the street, you might face trouble, because there might be women in your picture.
But if you try to get the respect of the society and go and talk to the locals, tell them the reason for your presence there, then they will open their homes to you. I was extremely lucky to have that connection. People were opening up in front of the camera – women, children, old people – and they were telling their stories for the first time in front of the camera.
We were quite cautious about how to film things. There were many locations that we could film but we decided not to. For example, one guy was killed at a wedding and we decided not to film that or the funeral. We decided to be respectful to the norms of the society and to communicate. And because of that I believe they opened up.
Being a journalist in Afghanistan can’t be easy. What kind of censorship does one face there?
Freedom of speech is blocked by many layers in Afghanistan. The first layer is tradition. Tradition blocks the expression of emotions, and it’s a taboo for women to come in front of the camera.
Then there are the local authorities, which in these societies are powerful, and they can shut down freedom of expression. In that area people only have electricity one hour per day, so to have 24-hour electricity and internet connection you need at letter from the governor or the mayor. So if you are an independent journalist it’s easy for them to shut you down.
And then there’s the central government. The Intelligence Ministry keeps an eye on foreigners. It’s so obvious if you go to that society that you are an outsider, and it’s not difficult for intelligence agencies to find you and have an eye on you, and you can feel it. We were questioned by them twice, and they almost confiscated our equipment.
You couldn’t easily film on the streets. Why?
There is this culture of IED [improvised explosive device] in Afghanistan. So if you see a person filming on the street, usually it’s someone waiting for an explosion to happen so they can put it on YouTube. So Americans are really sensitive about being filmed. We were warned by the locals that if you take any pictures of the Americans you might be targeted.
Another thing the film highlights is the high risk of being kidnapped. Were you concerned about that?
Yes, and that’s why it’s important to listen to the locals. When we were traveling from one city to another, we couldn’t travel any time. There are risky times, usually before sunset. So we would leave early in the morning and go back early. But it did happen that our interviews took longer than expected. So once we decided to stay in a really dangerous village. We were hearing bullets and explosions all night, but we were told that staying there was safer than heading back, because you might be kidnapped on the way.
What did this experience give you as a person?
It was a life-changing experience for me. When I came back from Afghanistan I was a new person. There you see happy people, even though they don’t have anything, and they might get killed the day after. You see how life exists without anything you take for granted, like stability or possessions. And they are happy. So when I came back, my concept about success, possessions and life had changed.
What happened with the film after you came back to London?
It was a long process. It took three years to finish the film, mainly because post-production is difficult, and we ran out of money. It’s so brutal out there. Post-production is a bigger minefield [than Afghanistan], definitely. Finding funds is the main challenge.
I survived a war zone in Afghanistan. I came back with valuable footage and material that no one could imagine. I thought “we made it,” but this excitement died as we went forward. So many films are let down during post-production and they can’t be completed. I was so sad that I was letting down all these people who trusted me and came in front of the camera. That was my biggest sorrow at the time.
I almost gave up on the film, when Maziar Bahari [founder of Off-Centre Productions and IranWire] supported it. Now after three years we have a film and this is the first screening. I can’t explain how happy I am that it made it.