Afghanistan Documentary ‘Frame by Frame’ Is Catching Attention

Afghanistan Documentary 'Frame by Frame' Is Catching Attention

Like politicians who carp about “tax-and-spend” liberals (never mind that Obama has reduced the deficit, and taxes) commentators on the Oscar doc race seem to think it’s still 1997— when Spike Lee was complaining, with some justification, that the odds of beating a Holocaust film for Best Doc were worse than being the Knicks, down 10 points in the fourth quarter.
   
Lee’s “Four Little Girls” lost to “The Long Way Home” (arguably, an act of larceny). But a Holocaust-related movie hasn’t won since 2000 (“Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport”) and in more recent years, the doc branch—and those who ultimately vote in the finals— have generally been making selections off Doc Lite menu. Over the last 10 years, the winners have included two music docs, one about penguins, one about dolphins, one about football and one about a man on a wire.
   
It’s hard to say how much past history influences the choices, or how the doc branch responds to criticism (on the face of it, Spike seems to have had an effect). But if they want to pick a movie that’s beautiful, empathetic and deals with harsh political realities while still elevating one’s faith in humanity, they could look toward “Frame by Frame” (Oscar-qualifying one-week runs in LA, November 6th, NY November 20) which seems to have come out of nowhere just as the doc steeplechase is entering the final turn.

Co-directed by first-timers Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, it’s about the emergence of photojournalism in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S. invasion — and a lifting of the ban on all photography, imposed by the Taliban when it came to power in 1996. (And which could become law again, should the power dynamic shift yet again).

   
Bombach, originally from New Mexico (and a resident of “the road” for the last five or so years) had set out to make a short, but one thing led to another, Scarpelli came on board and what has resulted is a visually elegant, deftly edited piece, one which shows the beauty of Afghanistan in a way the West virtually never sees. The people, too – the four photographers profiled by “Frame by Frame” take their own courage and intensity in stride, the film doesn’t beat us over the head with it either, but it doesn’t have to: Nothing they do requires anything less than cojones the size of a camel.
   
And that particularly applies to Farzana Wahidy, the most prominent female photo-journalists in Afghanistan, one who specializes in the plight of women in a fundamentalist Islamic society — which of course is her plight, too, and that of Bombach and Scarpelli, who went everywhere their subjects did, and managed to get some truly remarkable footage. “I think being a women there actually helped in some cases,” Bombach said during a screening Manhattan, “because you’re not taken seriously.”

One conversation she captured, involving a doctor at a burn hospital in Herat where Wahidy wants to interview women who have self-immolated, something the doctor hedges about, and then denies exists, and then explains that the political situation locally will put him in peril if he admits anything and then asks them to not to photograph — all the while providing a very eloquent case study of his own about terror and intimidation. And he does it as if the cameras aren’t there, perhaps because they’re being held by women.—John Anderson 

More details below about how this remarkable film got made in Anne Thompson’s interview with Bombach, who started shooting video at 13, studied business but shot videos in college, and graduated at the height of the recession. “There was no work, so I decided to do what I want to do,” she told me at the BendFilm Festival in Oregon. “In 2009 I started my production company.” This young doc nomad is at the start of a promising career indeed.
Anne Thompson: How did you meet your directing partner Mo Scarpelli?

Alexandra Bombach: Mo originally hired me as cinematographer and sound person for a shoot she was doing in Ethiopia. We worked on two different projects together. When I decided to do this trip [to Kabul, Afghanistan] she was the first one who came to mind, she’s self sufficient, and I needed that.

How did this idea come to you?

In 2012 I did a short in Afghanistan about another non-profit. A videographer living in Kabul handed me a hard drive of footage, with B-roll down the middle of a street, he let it roll for 20 minutes. I was set back on my heels by the normal everyday life of people walking down the street. I was shocked by my own surprise. I wanted to make a film about the perception of this place from local storytellers.

You got amazing access for the film.

The photographers gave us the access that would have been impossible and made it unique. That’s how important it is to have local photojournalists in a country, who have access no one else has. Going in for two weeks and leaving is a different thing.

How did you select the photographers? 
That came around when I found out that photography was banned. It seemed the right way to tell the story, a powerful thing to move things forward and capture the truth in a one click kind of way. While writing and film have influence on things, photography is hard to argue with.

Massoud Hossaini had just won the Pulitzer Prize; Farzana Wahidy was a woman known for her work with Afghan women, and the same videographer who gave us footage introduced me to the others, Wakil Kohsar and Najibullah Musafer. 

I thought it was a short film, but once I did the interviews, each four hours long, it was obvious that it needed to be a bigger story. The first time I went for two weeks on my own dime. The second time we did Kickstarter, Mo came on as co-director, for 2 1/2 months, with both of us shooting. I was directing the first shoot, then the two of us did camera and sound, both producing, directing and shooting. 
How did that work? 
We were shooting mostly with the [Canon] Mark III. We had the shotgun on top; we always had a juice link that would interrupt the signal so the DSLR input was at the bottom of the camera, we put the wireless and shotgun mic into that which would sync the sound so we didn’t have to worry about that. We were riding around on monopods a lot of the time. We wanted to make it as cinematic a possible. We were under pressure to match the quality of the photography. I hadn’t seen a lot of films coming out of Afghanistan that took time with the imagery of such a beautiful country.

Frame by Frame – 2013 teaser from RED REEL on Vimeo.

How much did you raise on Kickstarter?

On Kickstarter we set out to raise $40,000, and raised $70,000. We spent a lot of time and most of the budget, on multiple translators, to make sure it was accurate. There was so much vérité footage, a big chunk of the first three months in edit was figuring out what was in our footage. I now appreciate making films in a different language. We wanted that access into the footage.
How did you end up spending more time on Farzana Wahidy? 

 

She’s going through obstacles the other photographers aren’t; she also has access [to the intimate world of women] they don’t, they admire her for doing that. They can’t photograph women at the same level of access into a room or hospital. Even our fixer often had to stay behind.
That hospital scene with the unsure doctor gives us a picture of what she faces every single day. 
Yes —it’s not black and white, it’s very complex, it was a half-hour interaction. It was a crazy scene to edit, to make sure each of the elements is in there: him almost threatening her, going through demeaning her, alternately misogynistic, wanting to help, being nervous, seeing a lot of emotions on Farzana’s face too. We see the emotions. We didn’t know what was going on that day, we thought we’d have more time there, you could feel the energy in the room and at the end of that conversation, he looked back at us, “ok let’s go,” but we got permission from him before, and got him to sign a release!
You also include a romance with two photographers who are married to each other.

We had this conversation in post, that we wouldn’t want to show that from the start. Farzana’s an amazing photographer in her own right, the dynamic between [her and her husband] is amazing, it’s the first time you see an Afghan couple so very modern and unique. It’s enlightening for people to see that.

Who helped you to pull this off?

Editor Doug Blush (“Twenty Feet from Stardom,” “Hunting Ground,” ‘The Invisible War”) was associate producer and consulting editor. He loves the film and helped, he came on at the end. Davis Coombe (“Saving Face” “Keep on Keeping On”) told us, “that’s the end of the film.” We had another half hour! Jeff Orlowski, the director of “Chasing Ice,” helped us to navigate the business side, he has a sharp mind, so many great people on the film fell in love with the story.

How did you edit the film? 
We started in January 2014—Mo and I edited it together. I come from Santa Fe, but I’ve lived out of a suitcase for the last five years, which is where I need to be. I like to edit on the beach in Baja, 10 hours on the computer and the other hours in the water; it’s inexpensive. We got a film fellowship from Port Townsend [Film Festival], they asked how they could help, we needed a place to edit for three months. It was great, it separated us from other parts of life, it’s a great town with a support network, on the straits two hours north of Seattle, gorgeous, the last town before the ocean. We also worked out of Portland and Boulder for a few months. 
What was your festival strategy?
We knew SXSW was a goal. We had a lot of recommendations from Doug and Jeff, who have a lot connections and knew the right festivals for us to be at: London was our first European premiere, and HotDocs in Canada got great response. The story came first. People end up falling in love with these four humans. That’s the goal: a one on one connection.

You have been going to multiple film festivals and winning jury and audience awards (Camden, Ashland, Brooklyn, Nashville among others). Have you made connections?

I met people on the circuit: I loved the people at the Ashland Film Festival, made friends in Bend and Camden. The fests allow filmmakers to meet and mingle, there’s such camaraderie, “is this a good idea?” “is this a normal number?”, just talking to each other. We usually pay the screening fee, they pay for travel and lodging, but it depends on the festival. Port Townsend we had to go to no matter what, and bigger fests like SXSW don’t do screening fees, don’t cover anything, but you’re getting to meet distributors and make connections. Fests are like camp!

What was your final budget?

In the mid $300,000 range, which doesn’t include outreach. We had an executive producer donate money to bring all four Afghans to the U.S. for a university tour.  

Will you work with Scarpelli again? 

This was more of a one-off. Mo has a journalism background, which was appropriate for this film. She’ll be doing more journalism; I want to stick with docs. 

Where have you traveled with your movies so far? 

Ethiopa, Kenya, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and Montana, a very exotic place.

What’s next?

I’m juggling a few other projects, I’m terrified of sophomore slump. I’ve been asking my mentors about it, trying to figure it out. My new film is about humans as an invasive species, with a combination of characters: people who have intimate relationships with animals like camels in the Outback and boa constrictors in the Everglades, so I’d weave drastically different landscapes. It’s about survival, eradication of species, who gets to live or die, who gets to say who belong where? We’re all moving around so much. I don’t belong anywhere!

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