Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix releases the film in select theaters on Wednesday, November 9 and on its streaming platform on Wednesday, November 16.
Asking things of films is a losing proposition. How do you ask, require, or demand something of art? And yet that’s what we’re left with after watching Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen’s “In Her Hands,” a documentary that seems entirely designed to push its audience to ask, require, even demand that it provide the most basic pieces of information about its subject. They aren’t. Viewers will either do their own research (even a Wikipedia page provides more context) or be so turned off they’ll never seek out more information about a fascinating subject. That’s a damning note for this Hillary and Chelsea Clinton-produced Netflix documentary.
Ostensibly a film about Afghanistan’s youngest — for now, and certainly for the foreseeable future — female mayor, “In Her Hands” follows Zarifa Ghafari during the countdown to, and then just after, the fall of Kabul back into the hands of the Taliban. Opening in August 2021, the film plunges us into the tension and fear of the time, with the United States readying to pull out of the country as the terrorist group who once controlled it inches ever closer to renewed domination. Ghafari, a politician, entrepreneur, and outspoken advocate of women’s rights and the need for education, has a target on her back, and as “In Her Hands” zooms backward many months, what’s at stake comes into sharper relief.
It’s not just Ghafari’s work that’s on the line. It’s her very life, and the lives of those she holds dear, from her boyfriend to her father, her bodyguard to her grandmother. But as Ayazi and Mettelsiefen tick-tock toward the Taliban takeover, they lose their grip and shunt aside what made the film interesting from the start. Who is Zarifa Ghafari? “In Her Hands” can’t untangle itself long enough to tell us.
Ghafari’s story is compelling enough — and, again, in a film that lacks even basic information, there’s more than enough time to fill — but Ayazi and Mettelsiefen opt to use their (incredible) access to dabble in hideous bothsidesism, spending precious minutes of “In Her Hands” embedded with the Taliban. Ayazi and Mettelsiefen don’t even interview the group’s leaders about how they feel about Ghafari; they use their time on the inside rambling about with one key figure. We don’t need scenes of the terrorist organization spending time in a school, or running around on their horses, or discussing how they avoid being watched by the government.
In a documentary about a woman whose entire existence stands in opposition to the Taliban’s twisted ideals, all we need to know, see, or hear is delivered early on as Ghafari shares some of the (many) death threats she’s received from the group, full stop. It’s difficult to determine what’s more insulting about spending so much time with the Taliban: Is it that they make zero sense in the context of the film, or that they might buff up the group’s political positions? What are Ayazi and Mettelsiefen possibly trying to convey?
Some of the documentary’s most difficult moments are handled in similarly baffling and insulting ways, particularly a third-act reveal that sees one of Ghafari’s closet confidants potentially taking a different side. It could — we’ll say it, it should — have offered a chance to explore the emotional lives of Afghanistan’s men, how Ghafari handles herself within her chosen profession, and how unlikely allies are made in a fraught times. Instead, it’s reduced to a gossipy he said/she said situation. At best, it illuminates how tenuous relationships can get in scary moments; at worst, it implies that Ghafari may have “driven” a friend to join the Taliban.
Other moments may not feel awkward not in intent, but do in execution. Early on, Ayazi and Mettelsiefen interview a Ghafari constituent who tosses off sexist platitudes and then disappears. So, too, do other talking-head interviews. Ghafari is frequently shown in important meetings among her peers, but the filmmakers only focus on the optics of Ghafari, a lone woman in a sea of men, rather than zero in on what’s being discussed. Any indication of Ghafari’s actual political accomplishments is scarce. We see her one time in the field, in an apparent photo op that has her handing out food to an impoverished citizen. Later she receives a massive promotion, but the mechanics that led to it are never shared nor is the potential fallout for her actual Maidan Shahr constituents.
“In Her Hands” is happy to tout Ghafari’s status, the easy headlines about her gender and her age, even tougher stories about the price she’s paid for her work. As to what Ghafari has really done, what she really means beyond those quick hits, there’s nothing. As the film’s official TIFF page notes, Ghafari’s autobiography will be published this fall. We can’t wait to read it, in hopes of filling in so many gaps that “In Her Hands” so egregiously opens up. She deserves more, and so does her audience.
“In Her Hands” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix will release the film in select theaters on Friday, November 9 and on its streaming platform on Friday, November 16.