If you want to see the lack of progress the US investment in women in Afghanistan, check out the Love Crimes of Kabul. This is the true story of women (and some girls) being held in the Badam Bagh prison in Kabul for “moral crimes.” Many of these so-called moral crimes are things that would astonish American audiences. Can you imagine going to jail for running away from your abusive parents and taking refuge in someone else’s home? And then that person gets arrested too? Or for falling in love? Or for premarital sex? This is one of those movies that makes progressive people want to beat their heads against a pole because there is just no reason why women should be subjected to these types of affronts. I just kept thinking when I was watching this, weren’t things supposed to be getting better for women?
Director Tanaz Eshaghian answered some questions about the film.
Women and Hollywood: What attracted you to this film?
Tanaz Eshaghian: I’ve always been interested in how gender is understood in traditional societies in the Middle East, like what’s expected of a woman and what’s expected of a man, what’s proper, how you’re supposed to behave, what’s decent, what’s moral. My last film covered that ground and so did the film before and so this topic had all that yumminess in it too, so that was the attraction. You get to kind of look at what is considered proper female behavior and what is considered taboo and how tolerated or not tolerated any form of female desire is outside of the control of a family.
WaH: How did you get access to the jail?
TE: The access to the jail was gotten by a local producer by going to the right ministry and getting permission. Western journalists and filmmakers are given access because it’s a new modern facility and they’re very proud and like to show it off. But the going there, every day access was actually really, really hard. Every time we went the head guards would find an excuse to either kick us out early or not let us in, it was very, very hard. It’s a miracle that we actually managed to make any kind of story because we always felt we did not have access.
WaH: What did you learn about the women that you didn’t expect?
The thing I was not expecting, and it took me a couple days to process, was that the main character, Kerima, told me that she called the authorities herself and had herself and her boyfriend thrown into prison. I did not understand that and it took me a day or two to figure out the calculation she had realized, where she thought okay this guy got me pregnant, we’re having a relationship but he’s refusing to marry me because his family thinks I’m beneath him and thinks I’m basically a cheap harlot for having had sex with him. She was going to become ostracized and be miserable, whereas he gets to just walk away from the situation, so she had figured that her best bet would to be call the authorities and have them locked up, in which case he’ll have to marry her if he wants to get out of prison. She thought she’d be in a better position to either rot in prison or be married to him, instead of being pregnant and without a husband. That would’ve been the lowest of the lows.
WaH: What was the hardest part of making this film?
TE: The hardest part was navigating the access. I mean, the courts wouldn’t let us film the court scene and the prison was so volatile and you never knew. At one point, they just stopped their access halfway through. The head guards just told us that we weren’t allowed in anymore and we had to call a high level of government to let us back in. And we had to be really careful of not overstaying our welcome and making sure we didn’t go too often. But the girls were really great-very bubbly and loved talking to us and really nice. No one inside the prison that was a prisoner were at all difficult, it was all the guards.
WaH: One of the US’s goals in Afghanistan was to protect and liberate women. When you watch this film you get a feeling that nothing has happened. Do you have any reaction to that?
TE: Well I think that goal is ridiculous. I mean, you can’t just walk into a country and liberate its women. Culture doesn’t work that way. Like for instance, now it’s not the law to wear the Burka but they still do, because when you’ve done something for a really long time, that for them is the equivalent of putting a shirt on them. You can’t just go in and tell people that it’s time for them to change all their habits. You can’t do that anywhere in any society. If that happened here, do you think people would start thinking and behaving different? It just doesn’t work that way.
WaH: As an American it is very hard to relate to the rules that women are put under regarding their sexuality. What can you say to make the film more relatable to Americans?
TE: I would compare it to America in the 1950s, before the sexual revolution, where it was still important for the woman to be a virgin before she was married and where a woman’s purity was a valued commodity, I mean that’s what this is all really about. When a girl was either thought of as marriage material or just someone to have fun with.
WaH: What was your goal in making this film?
TE: I don’t think in terms of any large, big mission. For me, the reason I make these films is that I think I can shine an understanding as to how a traditional culture that is based on shame operates, and I can through these stories, show westerners the logic that is so foreign to them. I both understand that logic, and I’ve been raised in the states so I have that ability and my hope is that through these stories show another way of thinking. And it’s a challenge, but I like it.
WaH: Do you have any advice for female documentarians?
TE: Make films that you feel a real connection, and for some reason, you might not even know why, but fascinates you because that will just keep you going and you’ll finish it and stay the course. You have to really feel like you are interested in something.
(Interview conducted by email)