From skateboarding in a battered, but hopeful Kabul in 2011, to the rural quiet of Aq Kapruk village in the early 1970s, these documentaries on Alchemiya show two very different times and places in the story and history of Afghanistan.
Even a cursory glance at the timeline of Afghanistan’s history tells you something about the present. From the first evidence of settlement in 25 BCE, this land has been contested, conquered and reclaimed repeatedly. Mughal, Safavid, Ottoman – the Afghans have been repelling acquisitive empires for hundreds of years. In the more modern history of the 19th and 20th centuries, they defeated the British three times and forced the might of the Soviet Union to withdraw in 1989. The damage inflicted by that Cold War proxy debacle, left a brutal legacy of civil conflict in Afghanistan that lasted over a decade and laid the foundations for all that the country has suffered since.
What comes next for Afghanistan’s people is uncertain, and political and military history does not cast much light on the lives of those who have to live with its consequences. A rare and unusual insight into the recent past, and the real lives of people on the ground, however, is shown in Skateistan: Four wheels and a Board in Kabul.
Released in 2011, but filmed over the preceding few years, this feature length documentary follows Oliver Percovich and Sharna Nolan who arrive in Kabul with little more than a couple of skateboards. In a country where children constitute more than half the population, their boards draw local children like magnets. These initial encounters, informal at first, eventually lead to the foundation of Skateistan, Afghanistan’s first co-educational skateboarding school. The film shows how a group of amateur and pro-skaters try to bridge cultural, ethnic and socio-economic barriers by bringing a group of children together over skateboards.
It is an amazing piece of filmmaking that takes you deep into the situation and the lives of the children involved. It very much presents the difficulties, as well as the triumphs of the project giving a multi-dimensional sense of the realities of life.
Tough, funny, heartbreaking and often hugely inspiring, this immersion in a street-level experience opens up a new and rich perspective about life in Kabul at that time, especially for the young. A different dimension is added to the picture when three international skateboard champions come to Kabul to work with the children and the project
Another factor that makes this film so compelling is it shows the constant challenges of getting a project like this up and running, and the exhausting amount of commitment, generosity and determination required. It is wonderful to have this on record.
Shot in 1972, Afghanistan: Faces of Change is a series of five films that present a portrait of rural Afghan life in the last months before the Russian invasion. The films capture the daily economic and social exchanges in the market town of Aq Kapruk, an area inhabited by Tajik and other Central Asian peoples, 320 miles northwest of Kabul.
The first film in this series, Afghan Nomads – The Maldar, begins at dawn with the caravan of the Maldar nomads descending on Aq Kupruk from the foothills of the Hindu Kush. In the Maldar camp and in their dealings with the townspeople, the film explores the mix of factors that kept nomads and sedentary people both separate and interdependent over the centuries.
Afghan Women examines the economic, political, religious, and educational status of women, their legal and customary rights. The words of the women and their lives in seclusion suggest both the satisfying and the limiting aspects of a woman’s role in a rural Afghan community.
An Afghan Village presents a collage of the daily life of Aq Kupruk. It begins with the voice that calls the townspeople to prayer and then takes us through the day. In the fourth film, Naim & Jabbar the hopes, fears and aspirations of adolescence are expressed via the friendship by two Afghan boys. As their acceptance of the filmmakers leads them to express their feelings more openly, the film grows rich in fact and themes of universal concern. However, this film is also an examination of the harshness of rural life and the poverty and difficulty of accessing education that accompanies it.
Without narration or subtitles, the final film, The Wheat Cycle, conveys the sense of unity between the people and the land as it follows the cycle of activity from the sowing to the harvesting of wheat. This may be a timeless activity but watching it, while knowing all that has happened in Afghanistan since these films were made, is a strange experience. Although less than half a century on, it seems like it could be a different planet but the facts of rural poverty and hardship in Afghanistan have changed very little.
It is not always true that the past is the best predictor of future behaviour. Experience changes perceptions, alliances shifts and survival requires, or compels, a different course of action from before. However, when power is assumed by political ideologues with a history of violence, it is hard to envision peaceful or even functional outcomes. Pray for the Afghan people indeed.