A show of hands: How well do you recall the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (circa 1979)? Not so much, eh?
Let Postcards from Tora Bora serve as a refresher course then. The film is Wazhmah Osman's emotionally resonant and colorful portrait of her childhood in Afghanistan and a reminder of what the country was--and what it's become since the Soviet occupation, Taliban rule, the Mujahadeen, lawless warlords and other plunderers.
Osman's family story recounting her childhood in Afghanistan at the time of the Soviet invasion almost didn't get made. The documentary, which had its Tribeca premiere last week, chronicles the filmmaker's return to Afghanistan 20 years after emigrating to the United States and her reunion with her father, a physician, who, save for a few visits to his family, stayed behind to help establish clinics and orphanages in his war-ravaged country.
"Originally, we were planning a documentary on Afghan women -- teachers and doctors -- we wanted to see if the situation had improved due to the U.S. and foreign presence post-9/11," said Osman's co-director Kelly Dolak in an interview. The project gradually morphed as Osman's family became the more compelling story.
Postcards is a sobering account of a family's estrangement from the life it once knew and a society and culture that no longer exist. It is also deeply personal, as Osman explores her anger and sadness over a childhood disrupted, her father's 14-month imprisonment and torture (eight months of which he was in solitary confinement) and the chasm that exists to this day over his remaining in Afghanistan after the family emigrated.
Osman's father Abdullah, who is featured in the film, attended the premiere and sat next to his wife. Osman said that up until the late 1990s, her father seldom visited her mother, herself and two younger sisters in New Jersey, though he wrote letters and sent video. "Nothing was ever discussed," she said when asked how her father's absence was explained to her and her sisters. "It was a huge burden on my mother," who worked for years in a mattress factory to support the family. At one point, the family was on welfare and using food stamps.
In returning to Kabul, one of the earliest scenes in the film shows Osman discovering dozens of old photographs in a chest in her paternal grandparents' house. "I felt so much," she said. "So happy and so sad. That room felt like it had ghosts." Later, in a particularly poignant scene, Osman visits the arid, dusty remains of what had been her grandfather's farm and orchards. She identifies a dry hole in the ground that used to be the swimming pool: "It was a metaphor for a place of nothing but happiness. And to see it as just a hole in the ground was sad." Graffiti of tanks appears on the side of the pool's cracked wall.
The film also includes an unusual series of visual effects that appear hand-drawn, as if by a child. The animated images cast Osman as a mini-Rambo superhero and serve as a metaphor for her anger over a lost childhood and country, she explained.
Dolak and Osman shot the film in 2004 with two mini-DV cameras borrowed from Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J., where Dolak teaches. Over the course of three months, they spent time in Kabul, where Osman was born; the Tora Bora region to which she, her mother and sisters fled and lived for four years; and Peshawar and Policharki Prison, where Abdullah Osman was jailed and where members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda are held. Through a series of connections, Dr. Osman arranged for the filmmakers to visit to the prison but ultimately decided not to accompany them; the filmmakers were prohibited from shooting at the prison but worked around the restriction to show the dismal conditions there. On camera, her father tells Osman that torture methods in the prison included pipe beatings and electrocution.
"Doing the film helped me see why it was so important that he was there," Osman said. Beyond her personal reflections, however, Afghanistan remains in turmoil: The Taliban have returned and while the U.S. and other countries committed funds to rebuilding Afghanistan, Dolak noted there are no more than "five skyscrapers being built" in Kabul.
Audiences can add "Postcards" to the handful of films set in Afghanistan including "Kandahar," "Baran," "FireDancer," "Osama" and the "Beauty Academy of Kabul." What little we know of this culture can be derived from such films. The country continues to be embroiled in conflict: On May 3, one soldier of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was killed and another one found dead in Afghanistan. Also this week, 50 civilians were found dead in ground fighting and bombing in a remote valley in the western province of Heart. And on May 2, nearly 500 college students torched a flag in the eastern province of Nangarhar, alleging six civilians were killed by U.S.-led coalition troops.
Osman's fondest childhood recollections may burn bright in her heart, but her country continues its frightful descent.