Jennifer Merin interviews director Suzanne Bauman re “Shadow of Afghanistan”
SUZANNE BAUMAN SHEDS LIGHT ON AFGHANISTAN< Shadow of Afghanistan A documentary by Suzanne Bauman and Jim Burroughs< Premiering at Tribeca Film Festival, "Shadow of Afghanistan" chronicles the history of the beleaguered nation and its people from President Dwight Eisenhowers friendly visit in 1959, through Soviet invasion and expulsion and the ensuing civil war, to the post-9/11 melee of American bombing and occupation. Academy Award nominated filmmakers Suzanne Bauman and Jim Burroughs worked on the film for the better part of twenty years, enduring danger and incurring debt to complete it.
“We’ve been hooked on the story since 1986, when Jim was filming in refugee camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. There, he met Wakil Akbarzai, a principal player in “Shadow of Afghanistan.” Wakil, a commander in one of seven tribes constituting Afghanistans population, escorted Jim into Afghanistan to film cities and mountains where the Afghan peoples ongoing independence war was raging.
We never lost track of Wakil, who moved his family to America for safety.< In 1992, when the Soviet-backed government fell, we followed Wakils return to Jalalabad, where landmines prevented him from approaching his home," says Bauman.< "Wed become even more committed to the story in 1987, when wed learned that Lee Shapiro, the New York filmmaker, was killed in action. We joined forces with his group to finish the project. Weve felt Lees spirit urging us to finish the work."< MERIN: Why has it taken 20 years to finish?< BAUMAN: We sought completion funding whenever the story peaked-- in 89 as Soviet forces withdrew, 92 as the Soviet-backed government fell, 94 when civil war erupted-- but all documentary funding sources-- National Endowment for the Humanities, CPB, PBS, Channel Thirteen, Britains Channel Four-- refused us, saying the film didnt fit their guidelines or the story wasnt important. Ironically, several typed letters of rejection had hand-scrawled margin notes saying the subject and our footage are extraordinary, and we must finish the film. But no money. Go figure. We were astonished, furious-- became more determined to see the project through.< MERIN: Why finish now?< BAUMAN: 9/11 brought focus to Afghanistan as an Al Qaeda base. That day, The New York Times cover was about the assassination of Commander Masoud, the charismatic Mujahideen leader who warned about Osama Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Pakistans Musharraf and Al Qaedas impending attack. Masoud was moderate, reaching out to western governments. Al Qaeda killed right before 9/11.< With footage of Torabora in hand, we approached the networks for support. Everyone wanted our footage, but refused to fund us.< With that, it became clear to me wed have to complete the film independently. Fundraisings a full time job. I might as well spend the time editing the film-- and getting it seen.< Afghanistans storys still unfolding, but its important that people know now what happened because they can influence the outcome. This documentary sets the record straight: Afghans didnt destroy the twin towers. Theyre victims, along with those who suffered death and destruction on 9/11.< MERIN: Is that why you wanted to premier at Tribeca Film Festival?< BAUMAN: Absolutely. The festival was born of the same impulse that compelled us to finish this film, which ends at Ground Zero, in a prayer for peace. Were grateful for Peter Scarletts support.< MERIN: (Filmmaker) Eugene Jareckis said documentaries are replacing news media as the publics primary source for accurate information. Do you agree?< BAUMAN: Yes, but its a glass half full-half empty situation. Half full is that audiences watch serious documentaries, and theyre not at all blasé-- its great knowing your film will be seen and discussed. Half empty is that documentary funding from news medias dried up-- because most medias mission is public relations for powers that be, rather than objective reportage about whats happening in the world.< MERIN: But is objectivity possible? You dont seem objective about Afghanistan.< BAUMAN: You use all elements youve gathered to tell the story as truthfully as possible, without proselytizing. But filmmakings an art. An artist without a point of view fails at the job.< Filmmakers and newsmen are different, although related like friendly cousins. Journalists doing nightly news standups use sound bites without giving much context. Documentaries require long form writing. You get inside the story, working the way youd write poetry, revising again and again to make sure its right-- beginning, middle and end.< As for drawing conclusions, "Shadow of Afghanistan" shows the Afghans are on our side-- but if we repeat Soviet mistakes, theyll turn on us. Then, you wont be happy with what you see-- because these are fiercely independent who people do not give up. They dont quit.< MERIN: You dont either. How many trips were made to Afghanistan, and was it dangerous?< BAUMAN: In all, Jim and (co-producer) Dan Devaney went to Afghanistan 17 times. They were often in danger.< In 2001, when Jim went alone-- with neither funding nor crew-- America was bombing, Osama Bin Laden was in hiding, nobody knew if the Taliban or Northern Alliance controlled the country, and Jim was filming in the Torabora Mountains, asking if there were Arabs nearby. This was insanely risky.< Four journalists were murdered-- I didnt know whether Jim was one of them. Thankfully, he was OK.< The murdered journalists were driving to Kabul without armed guards. Not smart. Al Qaeda ambushed them, yanked them from their trucks, beat and murdered them. It was horrible.< Jim documented everything. His footage of their coffins is in the film.< MERIN: Thats heavy. Youre sort of documentary film warriors. Have you also battled with changing technology?< BAUMAN: Yes. We started with super 16, planning a blowup to 35. So we were cutting film on a Steenbeck until the mid-90s. By 9/11, wed crossed the digital divide. We had to transfer everything into a computer. And, we had to bake audiotapes so they wouldnt flake and be destroyed when we transferred them. So we had to become film archivists as well as filmmakers.<