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
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.
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.
How much did you raise on Kickstarter?
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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?
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!
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.
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!