In the spring of 2000, I received my first glimpse of the atrocities that Afghan women suffered under the Taliban by viewing the 15-minute documentary, Shroud of Silence, produced by the Feminist Majority. Being a human rights advocate, feminist activist and documentary filmmaker, I felt the immediate urge to go to Afghanistan to uncover more of these atrocities and hear the Afghan women's stories first hand. Unfortunately at the time I was already heavily involved in another long-term project, and could not leave. Also, I was not quite sure how as a white American woman, I would be able to enter a country with such restrictions on women and obtain this information by myself. I did not want to undertake a project like this from a Western perspective. I needed an Afghan collaborator, someone who understood the cultural and language barriers and who had the insight that I, as an outsider, would not have. Unfortunately, I was not able to find such a person. But the idea of traveling to Afghanistan to meet these women never left me.
In January 2002, an unexpected fortune landed in my lap. I received an e-mail from Global Exchange, a San Francisco based human rights organization, advocating an all female delegation to Kabul, Afghanistan, in commemoration of the first International Woman's Day to be held there in six years (since Taliban reign). Here was the opportunity that I had been looking for: an entrance to the country. I applied that day and one month later I was on a plane.
Upon landing in Kabul, my first reaction was of surprise. In some ways Kabul seemed like many other bustling Middle Eastern cities, with crowded, chaotic streets, honking cars and loud music escaping from every shop. These people had a "joie de vivre", a spirit that I did not expect from a country emerging from 23 years of war. The women particularly held this spirit. I was overwhelmed by their sense of self-pride and confidence after six years of extreme gender oppression. To my surprise, they never lost these characteristics and on the contrary, it was their strength, which led them to be resisters, regardless of age. For example, several women who ran clandestine schools during the Taliban era felt that it was their "duty" to keep education alive, if they faltered the future of Afghanistan was at stake. Who would have expected to find this kind of determination beneath those silent burqas?
After leaving Kabul, I stayed an additional eight days on my own in Northern Pakistan where I visited different Afghan women's organizations and refugee camps. It was here that "I had a most inspiring and depressing day; I saw hope and suffering all at the same time" (Journal Entry, March 13, 2002). The hunger for knowledge and the youth's eagerness to return to Afghanistan to help rebuild their country was astounding. The hunger of the refugees that have no means to return home, nor a home to return to was devastating.
The fact that I traveled with a delegation made my filmmaking experience quite unique and constraining. Because of the limited numbers of people allowed with the group, I was forced to be my own production crew, a very arduous task. My mobility, while with the group, was restricted and overall, my translators experience varied. Due to the timeliness of the subject, upon my return, I had to edit the film swiftly, before Afghanistan left the interest of the public eye. I therefore edited the project in essentially four months, mostly on my own.
What was truly fascinating for me about this project was the keen public interest. Produced for about $10,000, the film was financed almost entirely through community support. Being that I had only one month to prepare all my travel documents, research, film pre-production, and fundraise, I was very lucky to have the co-sponsorship of RAWA Supporters Santa Barbara. Thanks to them, the Santa Barbara community, women's support groups and friends, I was able to garnish $6,000 in just one month. Upon my return, the Fund for Santa Barbara assisted in post-production funds. It is evident that without the help of these interest groups and the concerned public, that this film would not have been possible to make. Truly this became a grassroots documentary: made by the people, for the people.
Although my "trip" was short (18 days), my experience was tremendous. My original intention with this project was to make a short 30-minute film to educate Americans on the plight of Afghan women. Three weeks and 36 hours of footage later, I realized that what I had captured was a much bigger project.
What is portrayed in Sadaa E Zan, is a snippet of what I learned and encountered on this journey, a small number of the numerous voices and stories that I heard. This film was made for Afghan women; I wanted to be the vehicle through which they could share their stories with thousands of concerned citizens across the ocean. I wanted not to give them a voice, (because they have one!), but to help their voices, once and for all, be heard.
-- Renee Bergan