Interview with Filmmaker Yassamin Maleknasr

16 July 2004

Host: Iranian-American filmmaker, Yassamin Maleknasr traveled across Afghanistan in search of how people there are living their lives. She says she wanted to show images beyond the obvious ones of the Taleban, the Kalashnikov, the Burqa, and the desert. The result is a travelogue full of poetry and music, a film with intimate portraits of Afghans hopeful in the midst of hardship, proud people eager to live productive lives and serve their country. This, says Ms. Maleknasr, is the lost truth of Afghanistan. The film was shown this year at the Tribeca Film festival in New York City. Joining us to talk about the film is Yassamin Maleknasr. Welcome and thanks for joining us.

Maleknasr: Thank you very much.

Host: What did you expect to find when you went to Afghanistan?

Maleknasr: There was something I did a little research on and that was one basic thing I wanted to do. I said I want to portray love, I want to portray life and not death or aversion. That was my thing, and that was what I was hoping I could find. I didnít know if I would find it, but thatís what I wanted to find.

Host: And did it end up being hard to find? Or was it there to find if you were looking for it?

Maleknasr: You know how youíre an old poet, and Persians and Afghans have this habit of how whenever they want to say something they give an example. But an old poet always says, that if you have love in your heart, and you have your heart open to strangers and meet them with that, then you will find it. And I tried doing that, and thatís how I found it.

Host: And now you mentioned poetry. And throughout the film, thereís a lot of poetry, a lot of people speaking, reciting poetry, both. Is it all historical poetry or are there poems that people have written? Now thereís students reciting poetry?

Maleknasr: Parts of them are the fact that yes, theyíre reciting poetry and itís from [Thirteen Century Sufi poet Jalal al-Din] Rumi and itís from other poets, from Hafiz [14th Century Persian Sufi Poet Khajeh Shamseddin Mohammad Hafiz Shirazi], very well known poets. Poetry in countries like Afghanistan or like Iran is a part of life. So in Afghanistan, I find it even more, I felt that people were so poetic, even in the way they, I donít know, I really tried hard that this comes out in a translation, which somehow you'll lose it anyway. But people are very poetic, even the way theyíll say the shortest sentence to you. So, yes, some of it is from famous poets, some of it things that they just made up. An example, if you want me to give you a quick example, it was a woman that we met in Herat. And she used to take care of our clothing and wash and all this, clothes and cook. And before we left, I was hugging her and I was saying good-bye. She came to say good-bye to me for four times, and finally I said, ďLook, you donít have to come any more, weíre leaving early morning, and I told her, Iím going to miss you, do you know that? And she said, no, but Iíll miss you more. And I said, how could you know? And she looked at me, and she had tears in her eyes, and she said if I shall not think about you my bones shout forever. And then I thought, I wrote it down in my little book that I used to carry and I thought, well Shakespeare could have said that. It was very nice, and this woman couldnít read or write.

Host: Well, you get a very intimate portrait of people and your conversations with them. Letís take a look at a bit of the film and get an example of that. This is a conversation you had with a couple of young girls and their hopes for their future and the future of their country. Letís take a look:

[Documentary] R: My name is Rahimeh. D: And yours? F: Farideh. D: How far did you study, Rahimeh? R: 5th grade. D: And you? F: 4th grade. D: What do you want to be? R: An engineer. D: And you? F: A doctor. D: But arenít you supposed to get married? R: Iím starting my studies at point zero now. I canít study if I get married. You canít marry and study. Youíll be stuck with housekeeping. D: Is your sister educated? R: No. During the Taleban [rule], schools were closed for six years. We didnít think they would reopen so she got married. D: Did you study then? R: I finished 3rd grade, then I went to 4th and 5th. D: You wonít graduate for another nine years. No. Youíll be twenty-nine then. Can you find a husband at twenty-nine? R: No, who cares? I donít want to marry anyhow. D: How will you support yourself? R: My father will as long as he lives or Iíll think of something then. Maybe I work with my brothers. I wonít live forever after all. D: Donít you want kids? R: No way! I have three brothers and I suffer enough. I donít want any kids. D: And you, Farideh? F: Me neither. D: What if your dad told you so? F: I wonít do it.

Host: Theyíre terrific, not only in your conversation with them. But also in a number of conversations you have in schools with young women. Whatís really striking is the extent to which, in thinking of what they want to do with their lives, they want to do something that helps other people, thatís useful. I keep hearing from young women in Afghanistan in your film about wanting to do something that has a purpose, that is helpful. How widespread is that attitude?

Maleknasr: I think itís a lot, itís interesting Iíve had a lot-- of since the film opened in Tribeca, and I must say these girls have been in the heart of everybody, every place I have shown this, people just crack up laughing and people love them totally. I donít think they know themselves how much theyíre loved everywhere in the world. And they portray a very interesting image, they portray the very young people that really all they care about is education. This has been something that they havenít had, thatís all they want. You know, itís an old example that they say, that if you only, if you [ask] people that have nothing, what do you want? They just want a piece of bread. Now if you tell people who have everything, what do you want? Theyíre thinking about what else can I want? Maybe a Rolls Royce, you know, maybe I want a Jaguar. So, theyíve got not, they have nothing. And for them the most important thing, yes, is education, and that is true [for] the whole country. It didnít matter- -thatís all they wanted.

Host: And this isnít just young people either. There was a woman that you spoke with who was, I believe, she was twenty years old and she was at that point in the seventh grade. But she hadnít given up on her education, she was catching up and she was determined to see it through.

Maleknasr: What you have to understand is that Afghanistan has had twenty-three years of civil war. I mean war anyway, if itís not civil war, it is twenty-three years of war. Where in the midst of this, people, you know, they went to school then they didnít go to school. So you know, this [kept] getting interrupted, people had to leave their homes and all this. And then, through the Taleban, which they hardly, the girls definitely never went to school. For them, this is like the most important thing you can give them. And this is what they want, this is all they want. So for them it makes no difference, you will go through all Afghanistan and you will find people who are twenty, twenty-one, sitting in classes and they are in maybe second or third grade.

Host: The girls there in the clip also talked about not being particularly eager to get married. And you also spoke with the woman who is the Minister of Health in Kabul and you asked her why she had never married, and she said she had never married because she didnít want someone to be her boss. Whatís the state of marriage in Afghanistan, and is it changing?

Maleknasr: You see the point is, I think, what I was trying to do is that I wanted, I kept wanting from the very beginning of my trip, I wanted to break the cliches. I wanted to talk about subjects people didnít talk about and it was something that I shared with these people. Immediately when I said, Iím from Iran, immediately the fact that I spoke Dari, it opened hearts and people were very comfortable with me. And I didnít have to have a translator, which was the good thing. And as I kept talking to them I realized that these women, for them itís important to be someone, to become someone and this is a very male-dominating [dominated] country and in all male-dominating countries if a woman is asking a woman, ďWhat do you want?Ē, now theyíre going to tell you exactly what is it they want. Maybe if it was a man instead of me, they wouldnít be so open, but with me it was sort of like they could say exactly what was in their heart.

Host: So many of the women you talked to said they wanted to be doctors or teachers and itís both ambitious but it also seems to reflect some limitations, or expectation of limitation on their part of what jobs are open to women.

Maleknasr: Itís not so much limitation of whatís open, itís really the fact that you have to think in certain cultures [that] certain things are just not- - theyíre not happening yet. I mean [in] Afghanistan, if a girl wants to be a pilot right now, itís not like her family is going to come and say and welcome her. So there are lots of jobs that people are breaking to become someone to be a pilot, to be a judge, to be something, to be a minister. These are things that we take for granted in the West, but if you really think, even in the West women fought a lot to get all these positions. So in Afghanistan, this fight is much, much bigger, because the fight goes not just to the government, the fight goes to the family; it goes to your husband, and it goes to your parents whether they will allow you to be doing that.

Host: Letís talk a little bit about the state of culture in Afghanistan. You devote a lot of time in the film to talking with people who had been involved with showing films or film-making or arts of one sort or another. You have a little bit where you talk to a painter in Bamiyan and this is the part of Afghanistan where the famous giant Buddhas were that were destroyed by the Taleban. Letís see what the painter has to say:

[Documentary] Painter: When the war was over I came to Bamiyan after four years. I found my house burnt. All my hidden paintings were burnt too. Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha and the burning of my house and paintings had a common fate. Sometimes I recall my burnt paintings and I go in that house and paint again.

Host: Whatís the state of the arts in Afghanistan? The painter here, his work having been destroyed, heís still at it. Heís still painting.

Maleknasr: Itís interesting, even how I found these people, I mean what I did, I said to myself, what I want to find is that I want to find artists whether they are filmmakers or theyíre painters or musicians, whoever they are. Because I knew that was something that was never really talked about, plus they were the people with a lot [of] problems, you know, at the time of the Taleban. And when I found him, when I actually looked at what his work was, and I looked at it and I thought they were just magnificent. And he did, by the way, give me one to take with me. I think these things are a part of people in Afghanistan, poetry, painting, all of them. And music is so much into the culture of these people. Itís very normal that you see very, very small town or a village that you will find people who have nothing, they have nothing to eat but they have taken wood and made something [out of it] so that they can play.

Host: And throughout your journeys it seems wherever you go, thereís someone who has a hand drum of some sort or a tambourine or a small instrument. Music is so much a part of the culture, tell us a little bit about, thereís a musician who is throughout the film, a gentleman-- Nahim Takhari, is his name.

Maleknasr: Yes, Nahim Takhari.

Host: How did you find him and what does he bring to the film?

Maleknasr: Heís rather famous now, heís actually gone to France. They took him there and they got a C-D out of his music at the moment. I found him at the end of my trip, an old man, he is seventy-five years old. He sang and played music in the Kabul radio, television about fifty years ago. And he basically sang and played in different dialects in Afghanistan and he sang from eleven oíclock, Ďtil ten oíclock without eating anything. He did not even have tea because he believed that his voice would not be good, and he would lose his voice. Heís a delightful man. And thatís where I found him, and then I thought I needed something. I wanted to unify the people. I felt that that was a message I wanted to give. I wanted to give the message that it is true, the unity of the people from different cultures, that Afghanistan can be stable again.

Host: When one hears that music was banned, dancing banned by the Taleban, I donít think the impact of that really comes through until you see in a film like yours how wonderful the music is and how much a part of everyday life it is and you know clearly was not squashed by the Taleban.

Maleknasr: I donít think you can squash those things. You cannot squash poetry and you cannot squash music, itís in peopleís heart. And people in that whole region, I mean even if you go into Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, into all these countries, to Iran. Poetry and music is part of peopleís life, is a very important thing. And it doesnít matter, I think, who comes to power, you know, you cannot take that. There are things that you cannot take.

Host: You talked to an artist in Bamiyan, but you are talking to everyday people wherever you went. How did everyday people who had grownup, have lived with the giant Buddha in Bamiyan, how did it affect them to have that cultural legacy destroyed?

Maleknasr: Itís interesting, I think, when I talk to people. Yes, sadly enough everybody, to them it was meaningful, it was something that was there for many years and in the film, as you notice, is that there are holes actually next to the Buddhas which was five-thousand years ago, the monks used to live and now people live in those. They have to come down from those mountains, take water and then go up. So probably in some very metaphoric way probably people are still part of the Buddha because they live around that. But the disaster that happened for the people, maybe the human disasters were so large that Buddha was just one of the other big disasters.

Host: Letís see one more clip from the film, this is with Judgh Fuzieh and letís see what she had to say: [Documentary: Judgh Fuzieh] When I came to Mazar-e-Sharif from Kabul and my family found out I wanted to work as a judge, my father asked me to become a teacher. He asked me to wear a burqa to work. One of my relatives who was a judge also told me to forgo [it]. That teaching was the best job for a woman, that I could not be a judge. But my own interest and studies and the situation in the society really made me want to go into law. To show to others that women are capable just like men. Iím not greedy or an opportunist. I just want to give a practical example. I am educated like all other judges. Iíve worked like them, if not more. I havenít done any less. Iíve worked with them side by side. Yet all management positions belong to men. Why doesnít a woman hold high office? Why does everything belong to men?

Host: Did you get the sense that women in Afghanistan think theyíre making progress at least at this point?

Maleknasr: Yes, I think so. I think, you know when we talk about progress, we have to make sure that weíre not talking about progress like the West, okay? But yes, they are making progress. When I was doing the interview with Fuzieh she was the only one in the court, the only woman. And actually the main judge asked me to his room and then there were all these other judges and he said, okay weíre here, why donít you film us? And I said what? And he goes, okay why do you have to film her? And I knew that they had the option of throwing all of us out. So I just said, well I will come and film you and he goes, ďwhen will you do that?Ē And I said tomorrow, itís just that today I have to talk to her and thatís the only reason. So, I admire people like her because they fight. They fight much more than any woman in the West to be who they are, and to do what they do.

Host: One of the things that comes through from a lot of the people you talk with is just a worry, a concern, that things wonít last, that what is good, whatís happening is going to be lost. What was your sense of peopleís expectations?

Maleknasr: I think I have the same worry, because I talk to them. Itís hard because it was twenty-three years of war. And after twenty-three years of war, okay the Taleban are gone, and everybody in the world made a big promise to Afghanistan. You have to understand this is a country with a lot of young people. In every household you have people who have maybe seven, eight kids and imagine they would want these kids to grow up to go to school, to be something. And of course the only way it can happen is through peace and so for them that becomes the most important thing. Even more important than the bread on the table.

Host: Thatís going to have to be the last word for today, weíre out of time. Iíd like to thank my guest, filmmaker Yassamin Maleknasr. Before we go, Iíd like to invite you to send us your questions or comments. You can e-mail them to For On the Line, Iím Eric Felten.

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