As if a resurgent Taliban and an Afghan government in disarray weren’t worrisome enough, Meena Nanji’s study of the state of women in Afghanistan, “View From a Grain of Sand,” adds another problem that deserves genuine concern. Disputing rosy media accounts of an improved situation for women, docu profiles three females who are barely coping with state of women’s rights in their homeland. PBS-style filmmaking and storytelling makes this a sure item for pub tube airings and widespread international broadcasts.
Like “Beneath the Veil” (reported by Saira Shah and lensed before the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban) and Renee Bergan’s 2003 “Sadaa E Zan,” Nanji’s project greatly benefits from assistance of the Revolutionary Assn. of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), the country’s only organization empowered to shed light on a persistently severe climate where women remain second-class citizens. If pic sometimes feels close to an agit-prop work for RAWA, it’s because the org provides the sole refuge for Afghan women.
Most impressively, Nanji relates recent Afghan history in a way that’s less poetic but more purely informative and emotional than in David B. Edwards and Gregory Whitmore’s recent “Kabul Transit.”
A remarkable treasure trove of archival footage of Kabul in the 1960s-’70s reveals a modern-leaning city with a bustling economy and a thriving intellectual class — and nary a burka in sight. Images underline a key point conveyed by Nanji’s narration — that the Taliban’s oppressive brand of Islam, known as Wahabism, was utterly alien to the country before the 1990s.
More history passages demonstrate how U.S. support of Islamic fundamentalist rebels opposing invading Soviet forces in the 1980s actually planted the seeds for the Taliban’s rise. Pic then shifts to a study of three contempo women — Shapiray Hassan, Wajia, Roeena Mohmand — all of whom want to help improve their homeland.
Hope, though, eventually seems quite slim as the women realize that their anticipated emancipation is far from reality. Nanji doesn’t hesitate to lay considerable blame for the current problems on entrenched, medievalist warlords and the lack of U.S. efforts to dislodge them.
Filmmaking in PBS mode will unfortunately lessen docu’s chances of inclusion in top-tier fests, which have proven to be the best platform for launching topical docus set in Middle East hot spots to a wider public. However, Nanji’s work is tailor-made for group screenings and discussions.