INTERVIEW: In the Land of Afghanistan, Italian Directors Tap Topical Human Rights Drama
by A.G. Basoli
(indieWIRE/ 11.26.01) — When “Jung: In the Land of the Mujaheddin” premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York last June, Afghanistan was a tough sell. Though the two-hour documentary drew a standing ovation at both public screenings, general audiences have ignored the predicament of a country that has experienced every humanitarian crisis, from gender discrimination to genocide for the last 25 years.
Except for the occasional jolt in the headlines about international terror networks and the destruction of millenary Buddha statues, the concept of Afghanistan blissfully floated in and out of the collective unconscious as a place where people grew poppy and wove expensive rugs, and as a location for “Rambo III” and in the 1989 British miniseries “Traffik,” “where authorities have no power.”
Now that Afghanistan’s ordeals no longer need an introduction, “Jung,” suddenly relevant, is playing at New York’s Cinema Village after playing alternative venues around the country under the auspices of the Traveling Human Rights Watch Film Festival and standing room only at Columbia University and NYU since 9/11.
Made by three Italian filmmakers Fabrizio Lazzaretti, Giuseppe Petitto and Alberto Vendemmiati between 1999 and 2000, “Jung” depicts life in Northern Alliance territories in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley as an Italian aid organization “Emergency,” led by war-surgeon Gino Strada, builds a hospital for landmine victims.
In interviews from Rome with Giuseppe Petitto and with Vendemmiati and Lazzaretti from the frontlines in Kabul where they are shooting another film in Emergency’s clinic in former Taliban territories, the directors discuss the making of “Jung,” from living with the mujaheddin to evading landmines, shooting digital to editing and dramatic structure.
indieWIRE: Why Afghanistan?
Fabrizio Lazzaretti: Because the world had forgotten Afghanistan. I became involved because of Ettore Mo. One night he told me a lot of stories about Afghanistan. So we all got together and felt we had to do something about it.
iW: Now the world can’t stop talking about Afghanistan.
Lazzaretti: If more people had done that before, probably we never would have gotten to this point. I’m talking about people in international politics.
iW: What’s the situation like right now?
Lazzaretti: We have B52 planes and jets flying over us. Once in a while they drop a bomb. Civilians here in Kabul just hope it will be over soon. They have been between a rock and a hard place for the past 22 years. I don’t think the capture of Kabul will be that easy unless the Taliban leave or surrender without a fight.
iW: How did the project start?
Alberto Vendemmiati: It started with the idea of doing a reportage on Afghanistan with Ettore Mo. Gino Strada, the doctor asked us to join the project so he could go and survey the area to build the hospital. During the first trip we shot a 75-minute film that was broadcast on RAI 3 in Italy and as a result people donated $175,000 to build the hospital.
iW: How did you live while you were shooting in Afghanistan?
Vendemmiati: It’s different on each trip. On the first trip we lived in the barracks, semi-empty buildings that provide basic shelter, with the Mujaheddin. We ate with them and slept in the same room with them, on the floor in our sleeping bags. They’re very hospitable and did everything they could to make us feel comfortable, but they have nothing. So the most they could do was lend us blankets. They always fussed over us, within reason of course. They shared with us whatever they had.
Lazzaretti: We ate rice every day and mutton once in a while.
iW: What were your work-days like?
Vendemmiati: We started in the morning and went with them until early afternoon, then we had to stop because of the curfew. Curfew was at sundown. It’s unofficial but no one goes out after dark.
iW: What kind of equipment did you use?
Lazzaretti: Three digital cameras, one was big and two smaller ones, lights and microphones.
iW: Tell us about the camera work.
Vendemmiati: I worked sound and second camera. Fabrizio was first camera. We did it all together, the three of us. We built an editing room in Afghanistan and wrote the script as we went along.
iW: Why did you choose to have black and white moments?
Vendemmiati: We wanted to create private moments, in which the characters share thoughts and create a commentary almost like a voice-over, which we don’t like to use and is the common convention of journalism. We had dedicated black and white only to our protagonists; for the Mujaheddin, we used the war songs.
iW: Did you stage any of it? There’s a scene in the hospital where they start a round robin of war songs — was that choreographed?
Lazzaretti: We certainly heightened those moments in the editing room, but when they wake up from the anesthesia their first impulse is to sing. It’s incredible because they may wake up without a leg without knowing it or even knowing it. With the war songs, at times they were spontaneous; other times they saw us shooting and they started singing for us.
Vendemmiati: They also liked being filmed. We were their only distraction in the hospital.
iW: How much footage did you shoot?
Vendemmiati: We shot 160 hours. We chose to record reality in a way that could be later translated in cinematic language. So in terms of shot composition, we always kept in mind how the sequence was going to come together in the editing.
iW: How did the patients and the people in general respond to your presence?
Vendemmiati: It took a long time for them to get used to us.
Lazzaretti: After two months they weren’t self-conscious anymore, because the relationships we developed with them went beyond our work as witnesses. We might spend whole days without shooting a scene, but we were there. We spoke with them, we shared our ideas, how we viewed the situation. You may not speak the same language but you look at each other and somehow you communicate.
iW: You went up close to people who were really in bad shape. How did you know where to draw the line?
Lazzaretti: We often have been criticized because our approach was more cinematic than journalistic, newsy. We work in this way and we take responsibility for it. We hope we haven’t misrepresented these people. From the friendly response and their respect, I think we can say we have accomplished this. Sometimes there were emergencies and we had to shoot very fast. But most of the times whenever a new person came we asked them first if it was ok for us to shoot them. Every single time they answered yes, sometimes with a smile, despite the ravages.
iW: How did you work as a team?
Vendemmiati: What’s interesting about the way we work — and it’s not something we invented by any means — which is now possible thanks to technology, is that we overlap the different phases of production. The initial project idea, principal photography and editing happen simultaneously over an extended time-period. Sometimes we used both cameras at the same time because we couldn’t do shot-reverse-shot. When the action was more important than sound, I operated the second camera, as well. Where the sound was more important we did it the other way. Both of us tried to cover all the roles and together we discussed and reflected on what we were doing. The idea was to tell the story of the construction of the hospital and that itself was the dramatic structure of the film. Since this was the theme we didn’t have to maneuver the narrative but just yield to what was actually happening and to do that with everything that happened around us. It was much easier to follow the leads during the scouting in the first part. In a sense we were more passive because of the inherent drama of creating the hospital. Once the hospital was built, it was more difficult; we had to choose certain stories over others.
iW: Were you ever in danger?
Vendemmiati: When TV crews arrived, the parties got excited and started shooting. They play-acted their role of soldiers. Maybe they thought they were doing you a favor and they started shooting.
Lazzaretti: Landmines are a big problem. A couple of times I almost stepped on them. They can’t identify them. If they manage to find one they put some sort of indication like two sticks.
Vendemmiati: They don’t know anymore whom the landmines belong to. Every time a front retreats they put landmines. Every single one of them put landmines since the times of the Soviets so at this point no one knows exactly where they are. That’s why once in a while they go off and they don’t even know if it was theirs.
iW: What was the editing time on the film?
Petitto: It’s impossible to say. We were editing as we were shooting. It took us about 1 month to edit the first 75 minute short, because we were on deadline. For the second trip, it’s impossible to say.
iW: Did you have access to Taliban officials?
Petitto: None. We stayed on one side because they didn’t allow us to go to the other side. It was a mess to get in and out of Afghanistan, as it was. They had these rickety helicopters. I found out that the helicopter I flew on to get into Afghanistan on the last trip crashed the next day.
iW: How did you come to the decision to shoot combat?
Petitto: You don’t have time to think: “Let’s go to the frontline or let’s stay here and be safe.” Once we decided to go, something happened, the adrenaline kicked in. Who knows what we were feeling. We went, we shot, we came home and then we looked at the footage.
iW: How did you protect yourself in combat?
Petitto: Bulletproof vests. With Kalashnikovs they don’t work, though. We were lucky, that’s for sure.
iW: What did people know about this project while you were working on it?
Petitto: We tried to explain to the people many times, journalists came to take pictures, they saw us stay longer and they were curious. We were trying to do something different. We also have a powerful weapon, our camera — it depends how you use it. We want to share this project with Emergency.
iW: What do you think of the fact that the film is finally coming out in the United States?
Petitto: It would have been better if the film had come out before today. Now everybody knows what’s going on in Afghanistan; only a few months ago people didn’t even know there was a civil war. I feel that “Jung” is the only film about Afghanistan that truly tells the story with the voices and from the viewpoint of Afghan people. “Beneath the Veil” is a piece of shit because it tells the story from the journalist’s point of view and continues to impose a western viewpoint on events; it has strong images but it’s a newsreel as opposed to a documentary. It doesn’t give Afghanis the opportunity to speak in their own voices about what they’re experiencing. Our documentary is not an Afghan-safari; if anything it’s very respectful of Afghan people’s dignity.