Afghan-Canadian director Brishkay Ahmed‘s daring tale of the origin and future of the burqa, a garment tied to the image of Afghanistan, was one of 17 films handpicked to celebrate the creativity of BC women filmmakers in a matinee retrospective on January 17 and 18.
WIFTV’s 25th Anniversary Retrospective was curated by Maureen Levitt, Creative Development Western Canada for Super Channel, and includes documentaries and shorts, which portray a female main character that struggles against a status quo and demonstrates strength and determination.
Vancouver-based Ahmed spoke with us about her film and what happened after its 2012 premiere.
In Story of Burqa: Case of a confused Afghan (2012), you visit Afghanistan to speak with locals about the origins of the burqa, a loose garment which covers the entire body, including the face, from head to feet. What were your strategies, working as a female director in Afghanistan, and asking questions about this controversial garment?
I am an Afghan woman and that is very helpful when filming inside Afghanistan of course. I wanted to interview high profile, knowledgeable and respected men within Afghanistan – that access was very important to get – because otherwise people will not believe what is shared. It had to be told by Afghan men whom other Afghan men and women would believe. Thankfully, the security situation in 2010 and 2011 was not that bad. We were still far from elections; people were trustful and willing to talk. I had also teamed up with a good crew – solid Afghan men – who really helped and stood up for me, many times.
Did you have to go “undercover” yourself going about in Afghan public life?
On the contrary, I spent a lot of time at the markets in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt with a scarf around my neck. For me, Afghanistan, it is home. I never felt the need to cover up or worry about my security. Yes, you can get some terrifying glares, but there are also a lot of kind smiles, too. And honestly, there is no way I could walk around the markets in a burqa, I am certain I would trip every step of the way.
Has the film screened in Afghanistan and other Muslim regions at all? If yes, what were the reactions?
Unfortunately, no. 2010 and 2011 were good times, but 2012 was a tense time in the region. The infamous video [Innocence of Muslims] that sparked outrage on YouTube was causing a lot of resentment and violence. My crew were locals and it could have been problematic for them during that year to be associated with a documentary that questioned the clerics’ idea of hejab [the veil that covers the head and chest] within Islam. I thought the fear and anger would die down, but then Pakistan’s blasphemy law started getting attention around the region. The blasphemy law makes it easy to charge anyone questioning or criticizing the clerics’ view of Islam. Inside Pakistan it allows people to be jailed, but within other bordering nations it allowed them to be attacked too, for their questions or alternative views. This made it impossible to screen inside Afghanistan 2012, and the violence after that video, really shifted how much one can or cannot say within Muslim countries about Islam. There was suddenly an environment of zero tolerance.
The premiere of Story of Burqa: Case of a confused Afghan at the 2012 DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver, and the Georgia Straight cover showing you in between two people dressed in a burqa made you the talk of the town. What happened to you and the film after the premiere?
I really enjoyed the screening in Vancouver and the DOXA festival, but the fall of 2012 was a very difficult time for me. I did not know what to do with the film. I did not now how to do screen it responsibly so that the people who were interviewed – along with the crew – would not be attacked for my point of view. Inside Kabul, the actress on a television drama I was directing at that time, came under attack by fundamentalists and we were trying to help her get out of Afghanistan. It was all really overwhelming and I did not now how to handle it.
Instead of a festival run, I signed on with Filmoption, a distribution company in Montreal, and they sold the film to DirectTV in the states and to some educational markets as well. I left for Southeast Asia with my daughters and traveled for five months – quite depressed actually. I actually saw the doc on culture unplugged (an online festival) and that was a nice surprise.
The WIFTV Retrospective honours women working in the film industry, particularly creators like writers and directors. What is your best advice to young women pursuing their dreams of becoming a film director, particularly from non-western countries?
- Choose a story that you are really passionate about, one that you can explain and sell over and over and not get tired of doing so.
- And, learn to say no, when necessary, loud and clear, so that your vision and voice are expressed accurately and not tainted with the learned idea that you have to always be polite.
What is next for you?
I am currently working on feature documentary, And Then There Were None: A Digital Tale. It’s a documentary about an infamous – incomplete – Pakistani court case. It’s the twisted story of five girls accused of dishonoring their families and being murdered by their tribal jirga [traditional assembly of leaders], after a mobile video of them, singing and clapping, goes viral inside their village in northern Pakistan. It’s an investigative social justice documentary.
Thank you, Brishkay, and good luck!
By Katja De Bock
Story of Burqa: Case of a confused Afghan screens on Sunday, January 18th at 5 PM at the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema (SFU Woodward’s) at 149 West Hastings Street in Vancouver. More info and tickets here.