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Afghan, Iranian Films At HRW Festival Explore Human Interactions In Trying Times

By Nikola Krastev

NEW YORK -- Davoud Geramifard, a Toronto-based Iranian filmmaker, was born in Tehran in 1979 -- the year of the Islamic Revolution, and lived there until he was 27.

When he decided to return in 2008 to film "Iran: Voices of the Unheard," Geramifard knew that he might end up in jail or be deported. He went anyway. His motivation, Geramifard says, was to present an objective portrayal of the oppressed elements in his country, one that does not distort the picture toward exoticism.

"The way Iran is being portrayed in Western media and also in Western academia, is not that authentic," Geramifard says, "and we're always suffering from these aspects of orientalism or that exotic look at the society."

"Iran: Voices of the Unheard," one of the offerings at this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, portrays daily life in Iranian society.

Davoud Geramifard
While filming on the streets of Tehran, Geramifard only shot for a few moments at a time so that if he was questioned by police he could say he was making a student film.

"Basically, the technique was to keep everything as unobtrusive as possible, keep the crew to a minimum number of people involved, always be protected in a car before shooting and then jump out, shoot, get your shot, get your material," he says.

Revolutionary Slogans

The jagged images from the streets of Tehran were shot with a hand-held camera, which lends them even more authenticity. The facades of the buildings are covered with revolutionary slogans -- some in Farsi, some in English. "Down With The U.S.!" is a popular one.

A five-story painted face of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appears to look sternly into the camera lens, below a memorable quote: "God Awakens Those Dreaming Of America."

In February, Human Rights Watch detailed the widespread human rights abuses it has documented since last June's presidential elections, including extrajudicial killings, rape and torture, violations of the rights to freedom of assembly and expression, and thousands of arbitrary arrests and detentions.

"Iran: Voices of the Unheard" resonates on these themes, even though the film was shot prior to street protests that followed what many Iranians believe was a rigged election. The film was given one of the coveted 20 spots on the festival's official program, among more than 500 entries submitted.

While the filming in the streets of Tehran presented the highest security risk, Geramifard says, the emotional catharsis of the film is in the second part, "The Dead Khan." It takes place in a desert in southern Iran where the Ghashghaii nomadic tribe maintains their winter quarters. The visually arresting images of the barren landscape accentuate the raw beauty of nature.

Juxtaposed against this windy scenery is the harsh life of a single nomadic family.

"Emotionally, I think, I had a lot of tense moments when I was shooting the desert chapter because of being in close contact with the subjects, with that nature, with that lifestyle and experiencing what they were going through," Geramifard says. "With the Tehran chapter, these people were living their lives. They had apartments. They had rooms. They had houses -- protected in a way."

Courage To Be Inquisitive

While "Iran: Voices of the Unheard" deals with human rights oppression, "Camp Victory, Afghanistan," another entry in the 2010 HRW Film Festival, focuses on the challenges the American military is facing in the training of the newly established Afghan Army. (Watch a trailer for the film here.)

Afghan General Fazaludin Sayar (right) and his American adviser, Colonel Michael Shute, at Camp Victory in 2006
At 54, Carol Dysinger, the director of "Camp Victory, Afghanistan," thinks her age worked to her advantage while filming in Afghanistan. She says she had the confidence to be inquisitive and assertive in an environment which remains highly discriminatory toward women.

The true focus of the story, though, is the unlikely development of a deep friendship between two men from the opposite sides of world: Afghan General Fazaludin Sayar and his American adviser, Colonel Michael Shute.

Dysinger, who is a film professor at New York University, includes some sinister characters in her film -- among them, a brutal Afghan warlord whose private militia was hired to provide security for a road construction crew. At the same time, his men attack the construction site and place mines along the road to jack up the price of their "security" services. Meanwhile, his daughter attends a school built by the Americans.

"I was not afraid of him because he had a lot to lose," Dysinger says. "He had a much bigger fish to fry than me. Getting to film him, putting a camera up in their face, it wasn't scary like I thought anything was going to happen. It was just that, as a woman, when you get looked at by someone who is used to thinking of women as, at best, pets, it's a hard gaze to receive. Nobody looks like this at me in my life. It's a frightening gaze. You know you are not quite human to them."

Uninhibited Hostility

Human Rights Watch's work on Afghanistan focuses on accountability, women's rights, issues related to security, and civilian casualties in the ongoing conflict. Its most recent in-depth study is the December 2009 report "We Have the Promises of the World: Women's Rights in Afghanistan."

The film itself indirectly reflects on the issue of women rights in Afghanistan, as Dysinger fearlessly navigates this male-dominated society with her camera, filming officers and conscripts, some of whom stare into the lens with uninhibited hostility.

Most are Afghan refugees from Pakistan who have been indoctrinated by the Taliban. In Pakistan, they would have made $33 a month as army recruits. The Afghan National Army pays twice that.

"Developing good officers, keeping them motivated to stay in -- all that stuff takes time. So, when you rush training, you're taking anybody, and when you're taking anybody, the people who are good at it start to lose, their spirits start to flag, because there's always people around them who aren't serious about doing that," Dysinger says.

The two main protagonists, Sayar and Shute, are immersed in this training process. The initial incompetence and ignorance of the trainees is appalling to watch. On top of that, the two men couldn't have been more different when they met.

Sayar, a veteran hardened by 30 years of nonstop war, faces an American officer who has never been in combat. The Afghan general can hardly conceal his contempt. Because they are working together, though, the two men are forced to interact. Slowly, the ice begins to thaw.

"[Shute] really, truly advised [Sayar], but with great respect," Dysinger says. "And Sayar finally realized he had somebody, an American, who was on his side. And what was lovely to watch was to watch this trust grow between them...Shute kind of just going in trusting. Shute has heard the stories and said, 'Wow, this is the man, this is the real man of war, and I want to learn from him and here's what I think I can help him do.'

"And then Sayar feeling that respect, really opening up to what he needed -- the problems he was having, how he would do it, his frustration with ISAF, and with the government."

By the end of the American's yearlong tour, the men have forged a deep friendship.

In January 2009, Sayar was killed in a helicopter crash. Dysinger was the first person to tell Shute.