Afghanistan is a beautiful country, one with a rich and deep history encompassing many civilizations. While the country has definitely seen its fair share of conflict throughout its ancient existence, personal and political agenda’s over the last few decades are what took over the direction of the country to what most of us see today.
The country has been in a power struggle for decades, and life under the strict rules of the Taliban stripped away opportunities, progress and basic human rights, especially for women and girls.
For me, watching In Her Hands was a film I couldn’t miss at TIFF 2022. It made my Top 10 list for a very simple reason: Zarifa Ghafari.
Strong female leaders is something that isn’t new to those living in the west, but in the east, being a strong independent woman is no easy feat. There was something about Zarifa and her story that was intriguing to me, and I wanted to learn more.
What I wasn’t ready for was the emotional rollercoaster this film would put me on.
A brave, bold film
In Her Hands is a very powerful, heavy film that has impacted me emotionally.
Directors Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen have respectfully captured a woman’s story during a pivotal change in Afghanistan’s history. In fact, the film is an inside view into the month’s leading up to the shift in power when the Taliban retook the country. Being able to see the thoughts of the people, and the emotions that many were gripped with, showcased a reality that no news media outlet is ever going to put into context. What we were saw were people hanging off planes, trying to run away. While we did ask the question why, did we ever visit what Afghan life was before the takeover?
Documentary films capture the subject as clearly as possible. However, with In Her Hands, I felt a very raw and impromptu approach to the filmmaking. A tragedy in Zarifa’s life, for example, was not something I expected to see in the film. Definitely not the personal moments.
Whether its conversations with her father, reacting to tragedy, reacting to the circumstances of her life; you got to see everything from fear to heartbreak, all connected to her love for her country while still wanting to express herself and claim her identity. There are many times in this film that I was overcome with emotions, with tears building up in my eyes. I could feel Ghafari’s pain, to the point where I was hurt. When a film stirs up your emotions and makes you reflect, you know its done its job.
There is quite a lot of criticism that we don’t get to see her backstory. I will admit, there were times in the film that I wanted to know more. There were visual indicators and simple conversations that made me ask a handful of questions. I would have loved answers to a few of them.
However, I took a night to reflect. This film was taken during a period of relative peace and then absolute chaos. While the filmmakers had the opportunity to dive into Zarifa’s story even more, this was more about using a relatable figure to tell Afghanistan’s story, its issues, and the plight of its people. Through Ghafari, the filmmakers got access to multiple different levels of Afghanistan including political and social settings. I also feel that while we may want to know more about Zarifa, she is entitled to her own space and privacy, which I suspect is one of the reasons we don’t dive into her past as much. Honestly, I can respect that.
While I have no interest in a terrorist group getting airtime, I feel the inclusion of the Taliban’s perspective showcased not just who they are, but the perspective they would bring to a world if they were ever to be in a position of power; which they now are. This narrative was important in understanding what people like Ghafari were thinking, feeling, and dreading. Dread without context is pointless.
We can always interpret a film the way we want. I for one find it easy to shred apart a film because of what it doesn’t do or what it doesn’t get right. But would I be able to film in a war-torn country, with danger imminent at any given time, during a shift in power, while spotlighting a figure who was marked for assassination? Do I even need to answer this question?
The film is a view into Afghanistan through the eyes of a young woman defying the status quo to leave a small footprint upon which others can stand and grow upon.
Ghafari is a powerful figure, both as a symbol of change and a vehicle for meaningful dialogue. It was inspiring to see someone have simple but thought-provoking conversations with her peers and her community, engaging rather than dictating. I loved seeing her sense of humour by which she would engage the very people who didn’t have the best impression of her.
Zarifa Ghafari inspires me. She has given Ayazi and Mettelsiefen an opportunity to bring Afghanistan back into dialogue, putting the spotlight on the people. We were given an excuse to watch a film based on someone, and while I didn’t get her full story, she gave us a powerful story to reflect on. In addition, she demonstrated the very thing we all continuously preach: to stand up for yourself, know your worth, know your rights and work hard.
I also was inspired by the people around her, including a faithful man who served her well and then was put into a position where he had to do what he had to do to survive. Due to the missing premise of her professional transitions, I feel the story of Massoum was a tragic one. Its one of the few characters I have mixed opinions on when it comes to his portrayal in this film. It has led to so much speculation, accusations, and more in the pieces I’ve read. I more so hope that he finds peace and a road forward, understanding his predicament.
I also want to mention Bashir Mohammadi. His humbleness and his inviting presence plays a powerful role in this film. As a man from Afghanistan, his views are quite different from many in the country, and this stark difference actually elevates a larger discussion on the male role in places where women don’t really have a right. The Bashir we see on film is who he is in real life. Having but a moment to shake his hand at TIFF, I saw his humble nature. It’s people like him that add value to the greater discussion around supporting women, and Im glad this film highlights him and puts a focus around that discussion topic.
These stories are important
Whatever your opinion of this film, I respect it. For me, the film is one for the archives. Its provides a perspective in the shift in power in Afghanistan through the eyes of someone defying the status quo. If the films subject were a male, it wouldn’t be as strong in my opinion. It wouldn’t have multiple layers of issues that could be discussed and there wouldn’t be a diversity of opinions.
Also, I am surprised this film even exists today. Ayazi had to leave Afghanistan, and this film was one of the few things she took with her. Let that sink in a little bit.
The beauty of documentary filmmaking is that there is no clear way to capture a narrative. It is what individuals wish to do. In Her Hands is very much the same. It takes Zarifa’s personal story to actually tell a larger, Afghan story, and help us who are so far away from the country to really understand the nuances of what it means to live there.
The film is due to release on Netflix in the coming weeks, and I highly urge you to watch this film and have your own takeaway from it.
In Her Handsplays as part of the TIFF Docs programme at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival. Visit TIFF’s website HERE for all the details on screenings.
Photo: Still from In Her Hands | Courtesy of TIFF 2022