Jennifer Merin interviews director Suzanne Bauman re “Shadow of Afghanistan”

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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 Eisenhower’s 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 Afghanistan’s population, escorted Jim into Afghanistan to film cities and mountains where the Afghan people’s 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 Wakil’s return to Jalalabad, where landmines prevented him from approaching his home," says Bauman.< "We’d become even more committed to the story in 1987, when we’d learned that Lee Shapiro, the New York filmmaker, was killed in action. We joined forces with his group to finish the project. We‘ve felt Lee’s 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, Britain’s Channel Four-- refused us, saying the film didn’t fit their guidelines or the story wasn’t 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, Pakistan’s Musharraf and Al Qaeda’s 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 we‘d have to complete the film independently. Fundraising’s a full time job. I might as well spend the time editing the film-- and getting it seen.< Afghanistan’s story’s still unfolding, but it‘s important that people know now what happened because they can influence the outcome. This documentary sets the record straight: Afghans didn’t destroy the twin towers. They’re 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. We‘re grateful for Peter Scarlett‘s support.< MERIN: (Filmmaker) Eugene Jarecki’s said documentaries are replacing news media as the public’s primary source for accurate information. Do you agree?< BAUMAN: Yes, but it’s a glass half full-half empty situation. Half full is that audiences watch serious documentaries, and they’re not at all blasé-- it‘s great knowing your film will be seen and discussed. Half empty is that documentary funding from news media’s dried up-- because most media’s mission is public relations for powers that be, rather than objective reportage about what‘s happening in the world.< MERIN: But is objectivity possible? You don’t seem objective about Afghanistan.< BAUMAN: You use all elements you’ve gathered to tell the story as truthfully as possible, without proselytizing. But filmmaking’s 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 you’d write poetry, revising again and again to make sure it‘s 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, they’ll turn on us. Then, you won’t be happy with what you see-- because these are fiercely independent who people do not give up. They don’t quit.< MERIN: You don’t 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 didn‘t 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: That’s heavy. You’re 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, we’d crossed the digital divide. We had to transfer everything into a computer. And, we had to bake audiotapes so they wouldn’t flake and be destroyed when we transferred them. So we had to become film archivists as well as filmmakers.<

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).