AFF Retro Review: Forbidden Lens: FRAME BY FRAME Focuses a Camera on Afghanistan

maxresdefaultFRAME BY FRAME (2015); Dirs. Alexandria Bombach, Mo Scarpelli; Documentary; Atlanta Film Festival; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Farzana Wahidy sifts through the books in her apartment, searching for one particular image among many. At last she finds the right one and holds it up for the camera. The picture is black-and-white and depicts three young, pretty Afghan women wearing shorts and loose blouses, their heads uncovered, arms cradling books. They are on their way to class at the university in Kabul. The picture is captioned: “Afghanistan in the 1970s.” When compared to modern Afghanistan, the picture seems to come from an alternate reality, not the relatively recent past. After the photo was taken came war, revolution, and the Taliban. Soon, taking another photo like it would become illegal. A generation of Afghan culture vanished under a Taliban regime that considered photography a crime. Today, without the archive of their struggles, people like Farzana sift through old books and wonder how they got here, and how they left so much behind.

FRAME BY FRAME, a new documentary from Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, is a look at a nation awakening to find itself. When the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan, they came as redeemers and reformers under a banner of peace and with a mission to return the nation to the true Afghan people. As with too many such movements, it ended in suffering when the regime revealed its narrow, strict idea of who the true Afghans were. To retain control, the Taliban limited the media and made taking photographs a crime punishable by imprisonment, torture or even death. After the U.S. invasion ousted the Taliban from power, a few took up cameras and began to take pictures once again and now, for the first time in decades, the visual history of Afghanistan is back in the hands of its people. Challenges remain. The Afghan media is still new, standing on shaky legs and trying to gain momentum. In the face of an uncertain future, FRAME BY FRAME attempts to mark the moment and legitim
ize it for the world.

frame_by_frame_stillThe documentary follows four Afghan photographers as they travel the country and encounter distrust, opposition, and bigotry. One man visits city slums to capture the face of opiate addiction. Another runs a photography school to develop the camera skills of the next generation. A journalist, Massoud Hossaini, runs into harm’s way to capture staggering images such as the photo of grief and violence that won him the Pulitzer Prize. Each faces cultural challenges as the lingering grip of the Taliban is still felt, but perhaps none more so than Farzana Wahidy, who seeks journalistic access and respect in a country where the rules work very differently for  women. Journalism is no longer a crime in Afghanistan, but even an act as simple as taking a woman’s photograph carries a deep social stigma, one that Wahidy bravely, and too often unsuccessfully, confronts.

Bombach and Scarpelli know what they have here. They’ve stated in interviews that the film began as a short subject, but refused to be contained, eventually swelling to feature length. There is something intoxicating about watching an oppressed people discover that the rights to their heritage are theirs. This is what the Taliban took away, the ability to define their country’s reality. Without photography, without media, there is no document of the now and no story of today except that which those in charge decide upon. This is the foundational idea behind a free press, that an informed populace can look past a false narrative and take action. By stealing away their right to document, the Taliban denied the Afghan people the ability to self-identify, made them conform to an identity of religious zealotry that still lingers at the edges of the frame. The film’s subjects point their lenses at poverty, addiction and bloody violence, but also at smiling children, marvels of Afghan architecture and an old man voting in his first election. There is both the destruction of the past and hope for the future—the country exactly as it is.

frame-by-frame-670x377But with hope comes anxiety. Afghans nervously discuss the upcoming exit of US troops, and with it the possibility of civil war. Warlords still rule and hold sway in the outskirts, and the new free press could disappear if the Taliban returns to power. In one of the film’s episodes, Farzana visits a hospital in a western Afghan town. Women are said to be self-immolating at an alarming rate. Although she’s arranged the proper permissions, she’s greeted at a hospital by a male doctor who speaks over her, talks down to her, and tells her that she will not be able to take the pictures she’s there to take. His concern is for his own life. If the local warlord hears that a woman has been taking sensitive pictures of other women—who, the film implies, are not self-immolating but are instead the victims of abuse—then the doctor could be killed or the hospital burned. Farzana tries to explain that the people have a right to hear the story, that it’s her job to report the news. He has no problem with her reporting the news, he says, just so long as the stories are about men. Even in freedom, progress is slow and precarious.

FRAME BY FRAME mirrors its subject by becoming a snapshot of an Afghan moment in time—informed by, but unmoored, from its past and anticipating an unknown future.

FRAME BY FRAME screened at the Atlanta Film Festival. Click here for a schedule of upcoming films. For more information on FRAME BY FRAME, visit the film’s website for more information.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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