by Jessica Mosby
But documentary film director and producer Wazhmah Osman does remember a different Afghanistan, the one she left at the age of six. Her memories, captured in idyllic family photos and tourist brochures, dramatically contrast with what she encounters during her visit to today’s Afghanistan. Currently on the film festival circuit, Postcards From Tora Bora chronicles Wazhmah’s journey to find the Afghanistan her family fled.
When you think of Afghanistan, smiling women in shift dresses attending college is not the first image that comes to mind. Decades of violence has devastated the country, leaving little more than bomb craters, crumbling buildings, families struggling to rebuild shattered lives and oppressed women who suffered at the hands of the Taliban. After watching years of newsreels depicting the country in such extreme peril, I cannot envision any other Afghanistan.
In the summer of 2004, Wazhmah went to Afghanistan with her friend and camerawoman Kelly Dolak to make a documentary film about the modern-day situation in Afghanistan. It was Kelly’s first international trip. After filming for three months in a country Wazhmah hardly recognized, the filmmakers had more than enough footage for the serious, issue-focused documentary they planned to make. But in the editing room something happened: they realized that the real story their documentary needed to tell was Wazhmah’s - specifically the physical and emotional process of returning to and connecting with her homeland after more than 20 years of living in the United States.
What makes Postcards From Tora Bora such a moving and original documentary film is that it transcends the endless political debate about Afghanistan. By making Wazhmah’s personal story the film’s backbone, the country’s history and current civil war become much more accessible to those who have not lived through it or been personally affected. Even viewers who cannot find Afghanistan on a map will be able to relate when Wazhmah visits her estranged father for the first time and questions her romanticized memories of her homeland.The film opens with photos of her parents’ lavish wedding at Kabul's Inter Continental Hotel in the early 1970s. Her parents, both from prominent and educated Afghani families, smile with friends in their trendy outfits and haircuts. (Sadly, the photos shown in the film are some of the few that survived; a large suitcase filled with photos was stolen at the airport on the family’s way to the US.) In these photos we see a life that has ceased to exist in Afghanistan; on a level that has a much more personal effect on Wazhmah, we see her parents, who have long been estranged, together and in love, as they were then.
Wazhmah’s parents’ relationship was another casualty of Afghanistan’s endless war. When the Soviets invaded in 1979, her father Abdullah was tapped by the KGB as an educated intellectual and was consequently imprisoned and tortured for 14 months in the infamous Pul-e-Charki jail. After being released, Abdullah was never quite the same. Soon after the family was reunited, they escaped Kabul on foot. While living in the border town of Peshawar for four years, Abdullah started a medical clinic to help other refugees. He wanted to start a girl’s school for his daughters, but as a precursor to the fundamentalist wave that has since swept the country, this idea met hostile opposition. According to some estimates, only 19 percent of women living in Afghanistan today are literate.
The title of the film refers to the region in eastern Afghanistan near Peshawar and the Pakistani border where Wazhmah and her family lived after fleeing Kabul. The area is also better known to the Western world as home to a group of caves where the US unsuccessfully used warplanes to bomb Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in hopes of killing him, and more recently, it has been rumored to be one of his hiding places again.
When Wazhmah does reconnect with her father during a visit to one of the orphanages he started, she interviews many of its young residents. Their harrowing stories - of fathers being killed in the endless fighting and uneducated mothers forbidden to work by the Taliban and therefore unable provide for their children - pull at your heartstrings. These children do not know any life outside of a war-torn country. And yet, when Wazhmah asks them about their future ambitions, their faces light up as they explain their career plans. Abdullah plans to build a trade school for these children, so they are not condemned to a life of poverty. But starting such enterprises is difficult, especially when financial resources are so limited that medical clinics don’t even have ambulances.As Wazhmah navigates her way through Kabul, she finds the landmarks in her tourist brochures have either been destroyed or rendered completely unrecognizable. Kabul University is now in ruins and the Inter-Continental Hotel no longer even resembles a luxury resort. While visiting her father’s family home, she learns that the parts of the house still standing after decades of bombing are occupied by two formerly homeless families whom Abdullah invited to live there. The families tell Wazhmah how grateful they are to have a place to live; one of the small children reminds Wazhmah of herself at the age she left Afghanistan.
Afghan-Americans like Wazhmah, by their very presence in Afghanistan, call up resentment amongst Afghanis who either stayed by choice or who did not have the means to leave. “Dog washer” is a commonly used derogatory term for Afghanis who fled and later returned. The idea is that those who leave Afghanistan take the lowest level job in their new country (for example, a dog washer) but upon returning to Afghanistan, exude a haughty air of superiority.
These attitudes have been influenced by the rising inflation that has made the safer, better areas of Kabul unattainable for average people; expatriates returning to the country with substantially greater financial resources, buy homes in the few neighborhoods that have been rebuilt. Everyone else is left to pay extortionate rent for sub-standard living conditions - that is, if they can afford a place to live at all. The random Afghanis whom Wazhmah interviews on the street express differing opinions on foreign involvement and the US presence, but most say they are grateful for international aid.What saves the film from being a heavy-handed documentary are the whimsical touches and well-placed wit throughout Wazhmah’s journey. When she lived with her family in the refugee camps in Peshawar, Wazhmah dreamed of returning to Kabul and saving the day. The filmmakers visually recreate this fantasy and personify Wazhmah’s anger over her lost childhood and country, by parachuting a cutout of toddler Wazhmah (wearing a digitally-created Batmanesque eye mask) into all of the major battles fought in her homeland while adult Wazhmah narrates.
Afghanistan is the often-ignored casualty of the Cold War and subsequent US “War on Terrorism.” The Soviet invasion from 1979 to 1989 destroyed the country’s infrastructure and gave way to the rise of the Taliban. Then of course on October 7, 2001, the United States government launched a war in Afghanistan, in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. The invasion, intended to capture Osama bin Laden, destroy al-Qaeda, and remove the Taliban regime, involved prolonged aerial bombing by the US and the UK, later followed by 20,000 ground forces. So after almost three decades of unending violence and ensuing emigration, how can the current Afghanistan ever be more than a mere skeleton of its former vibrant self? The footage of the country today will depress most viewers, but the world should not by any means give up.
During the Question & Answer session that followed the film’s screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival in California, Wazhmah said that the movie inspired a dialog between her estranged parents. Hopefully the film will start a similar discourse for people who have either ignored or forgotten about Afghanistan.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.