A picture may say a thousand words, but it doesn’t have to: For every photograph in which closer investigation yields narrative upon narrative, there’s another with a message as immediate and urgent as an involuntary cry of pain. Both levels of visual expression are shown to be essential in “Frame by Frame,” a piercing, poignant and — as befits its subject — beautifully composed exploration of the challenges and responsibilities faced by photojournalists in Afghanistan’s post-Taliban free press. As its subjects’ images probe unhealed schisms of gender, faith and privilege in a country still hostile to liberal journalism, Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli’s film in turn proves the alternately confrontational and cathartic power of the camera lens. Already justly well-traveled on the festival circuit, the pic will continue to move auds as it begins a limited U.S. rollout.
“If a country is without photography, it is without identity,” says one of the shutterbugs interviewed in “Frame by Frame.” It’s a statement that might sound vaguely, worthily platitudinous if the country in question were not Afghanistan, where residents can recall first-hand the disabling effect of living in a photo-free society, and the blind eye turned by many outsiders to troubles they can’t physically see. Title cards at the film’s outset offer auds a potted history of Afghanistan’s tumultuous governmental shifts since the Soviet invasion of 1979, obviously with particular emphasis on the Taliban’s punishing rule from 1996 to 2001 — during which time all photography was declared illegal.
Words, then, must solely account for the harrowing injustices of that period. Happily, Bombach and Scarpelli (both first-time feature helmers, which is hardly obvious from the polished presentation here) listen as intently as they look: Photographer Farzana Wahidy, who spent her teens under the regime, relates with heart-stopping clarity the experience of being beaten in the street by adult men for the perceived crime of not wearing a burqa. Abuse like this drove the young woman to a career of documenting such oppression as extensively and vividly as possible, making up for those darkened years that saw the social status and education of Afghan women compromised in drastic, as-yet-unrecovered fashion. (At one point, Wahidy pages through a book of 1970s street photography in Kabul, marveling at the liberated nature of the women in focus.)
Wahidy’s resilient feminist stance makes her the most compelling of the film’s otherwise male quartet of principal interviewees, though all four are lucid and thoughtful on the subject of their own craft and its larger place in the political sphere. They include Najibullah Musafer, who lectures in photojournalism at a local media foundation, AINA, and Wakil Kohsar, a former refugee in Pakistan whose images project his patent empathy with those on society’s margins.
The most internationally celebrated of the four is Wahidy’s husband, Massoud Hossaini, whose widely circulated, profoundly upsetting shot of a distressed child surrounded by dead bodies in the immediate wake of the 2011 Ashura bombings earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Two years on, he visits the girl, Tarana, and her still-grieving family, for whom time hasn’t proven much of a healer: “Every day our wounds get fresher,” says Tarana’s mother. It’s a raw reminder of the photographer’s important but passive position in times of strife: Hossaini’s snapshot may have valuably exposed their suffering to the world, but his duty is of little immediate benefit to those in the frame.
Wahidy, meanwhile, still finds herself hamstrung by the administrative politics of what may or may not be seen: In the film’s most startling sequence, her attempted photo-essay on self-immolation victims in the city of Herat is stymied by hospitals’ refusal to acknowledge the issue. A doctor privately explains that they regard any reference to the practice — particularly through pictures — as tantamount to encouragement; Wahidy views it as a more detrimental form of denial. The route she and the filmmakers eventually find around that barrier, with an artfully shot interview with a female victim of forced immolation — her face hidden, but her burn scars candidly on view — is entirely wrenching.
Bombach edits the four photographers’ testimonies together in a fluid, quasi-conversational way that underlines their joint sense of against-the-system solidarity. And while their most extraordinary still photographs are generously displayed on screen, the film’s crystalline lensing — by both helmers — conjures some memorable images of its own. Some are unexpectedly serene (a lakeshore funfair on a balmy day appears imported from another world entirely), while propulsive tracking of Hossaini’s hard-news beat recalls the desperate, in-the-moment atmosphere of last year’s “Nightcrawler” — albeit in a very different cultural context, and one in which the women and men behind the camera emerge with considerably more credit.