Filmmaker Alexandria Bombach was working on a short documentary in 2012 when she was given some footage shot in Afghanistan. Meant as B roll, or background, the footage was shot on a camera set up on a street in Afghanistan. The photographer had turned the camera on and walked away. At first it seemed like nothing was happening. But Bombach decided to watch and as she did she was immersed in the ordinariness of everyday life and struck by what she saw. As her colleague Mo Scarpelli tells it, Bombach thought, here was a country that the US is intrinsically tied to and we have no idea what it's like to live there.
She had heard about a small group of photojournalists working in Afghanistan since the Taliban lost power in 2001 and thought their story might just be the window into Afghani life that she was looking for. She called Scarpelli, and asked her if she'd go with her. The two knew each other from previous projects they had worked on in Africa and Asia. Scarpelli agreed. So Bombach sold her car to buy the air tickets, and Skyped with a fixer they had heard of through a friend. They didn't want to do too much research in advance. "The best way, is to just go," Scarpelli said. "A lot of the information we get here is coming from a foreign, white perspective. We are more interested in telling local stories." They hoped they would be able to connect with the fledgling photojournalist community working in Kabul.
"Frame by Frame," their first feature-length documentary that will open on Friday at the Laemmle Music Hall, is what came out of that impulse. In order to make the film, Scarpelli says the two filmmakers reached out to many more experienced in feature-length storytelling. "We built a village around the film," she says. She called the process wonderful, but really hard. While they shot for only 8 weeks, it took a year and a half of post production and editing.
The film is a compelling and inspirational look at four photojournalists who are determined to document life on the streets in their country, and that job can be a risky business. We meet Najibullah Musafer, Massoud Hossaini, Farzana Wahidy and Wakil Kohsar, part of a tight-knit but growing community of working photojournalists in Afghanistan today. Despite the risks, these four are driven to document the lives and struggles of those who live the ordinary stories. It is a very affecting film. When the Taliban were defeated in 2001, these photographers were more easily able to work in the open but they still encounter fear on the streets.
Wahidy, the only female among the four, has made the plight of women in Afghanistan her focus. When she travels to Herat to visit burn victims who were abused by husbands or family members, the doctor at the special clinic set up for these women denies her entrance, fearing for his own safety should she document the truth. The hospital has gone so far as to change the name of the burn unit to defuse and confuse the public as to who is being treated there. The exchange is telling, both in the doctor's worry for his and his hospital's safety, and Wahidy's persistence in searching for the truth. Once ejected, Wahidy finds a willing victim who eventually gives a harrowing interview, telling how, after an unhappy arranged marriage, she was doused with gasoline and set ablaze by her father-in-law. Wahidy tries to keep her composure but these abuses are difficult for anyone to listen to. The photographer, who had to get her education in secret with 300 other girls when the Taliban came to power, is determined to shine a light on the abuses, both physical and emotional, that women in Afghanistan suffer today.
Massoud Hossaini, the most well-known of the photographers in the film, who happens to be married to Wahidy, won a Pulitzer for spot news in 2012 when he witnessed a bombing during a religious rite and documented the horror unfolding before him. But the acclaim does nothing to ease the pain he witnessed that day, or the memories easily conjured up when he visits the victims who survived and who still stay in touch with him. His commitment to his craft makes for a complicated dance between personal safety and public responsibility. Like each of the photographers in the film, it is that commitment to the truth but also to their fellow Afghanis that drives them on their dangerous mission. Sadly, the film cannot be shown in Afghanistan but the filmmakers are doing everything they can to make it available to the Afghani American community through free community and online screenings, and at screenings at over 30 American universities.
All of the photographers--Hossaini, Wahidy, Najibullah Musafer and Wakil Kohsar--attended classes at the AINA Photojournalism Institute, started in Afghanistan in 2002 by National Geographic photographer Reza Deghati to train native Afghanis in documenting their own country. Najibullah Musafer, the oldest photographer of the four in the film, has continued shooting, but also started Third Eye Photo Center in Kabul to train young people in photojournalism and photography. Only with constant vigilance will news of their country filter out beyond its borders. The joint effort between Bombach and Scarpelli and the four photographers in this film makes very clear the importance and commitment of those seeking truth and sending it out into the world, despite huge personal risks.
Another love letter to journalism also opens Friday, "Spotlight," the star-studded bigger budget feature about the Boston Globe's investigative series that exposed the priest pedophilia scandal and cover-up perpetrated by the Catholic Church in Boston and, ultimately, internationally. The film centers on the investigation begun at the Globe in 2001 when editor Marty Baron, formerly of the LA Times, New York Times, Miami Herald and currently the executive editor of the Washington Post, arrived at the Globe and with an outsider's perspective, was able to guide his staff through an investigation into allegations of abuse that had been ignored for years. The Globe's work won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.
A paean to the very old-school ethic of knocking on doors, searching records for paper trails, reading microfilmed archives and old clips, this film could very well be the shot in the arm that journalism needs right now. Just as "All the President's Men" caused a jump in journalism school enrollment when it showcased the work done by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward at the Washington Post as they, along with Deep Throat, launched an investigation that ultimately brought down Nixon and 40 of his aides for the Watergate break-in and cover-up in 1972, the heroes in "Spotlight" responsible for speaking truth to power--and in Boston nothing was more powerful or entrenched than the Catholic Church--are the journalists committed to exposing the tragic truth. The film keeps you on the edge of your seat.
These two films are my kind of superhero movies.