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Afghanistan: A Video Portrait


Earlier this year, filmmakers Lukas and Salome Augustin traveled to Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif, intent on capturing portraits of daily life. Lukas had lived in Kabul from 2006 to 2008, working with a humanitarian aid organization called Operation Mercy, and he'd fallen in love with the place. When he returned this year with his then-fiancée Salome, he shot this film, in part as a tribute to his friend Gayle Williams, an aid worker who was killed by the Taliban in 2008. I normally post still photos to In Focus, in part because I love the ability to linger on a scene. But Lukas and Salome have a still photographer's eye, and they've composed a very intimate series of video portraits of both the people and the landscape. The film lasts just under six minutes, so I invite you to take a few moments, relax, start the video in fullscreen mode, and let Lukas and Salome Augustin take you on a beautiful visit to the Hindu Kush. (A brief Q&A with the filmmakers is below the video here as well.) This entry is part of an ongoing monthly series on Afghanistan. [1 video]

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Afghanistan - touch down in flight, a film by Lukas and Salome Augustin. Click image above to play. (If the embedded video is not working, view on Vimeo) (© Augustin Pictures)
Afghanistan - touch down in flight, a film by Lukas and Salome Augustin. Click image above to play. (If the embedded video is not working, view on Vimeo) (© Augustin Pictures)

I also had a few brief questions for Lukas and Salome, and they were kind enough to answer here:

Q: A soldier at about the 2:00 mark appears to be crying. Is there a story behind that, or is it left as a mystery for the viewer?

A: The soldier with a tear and an AK47 is one of our strongest pictures that tells as we think so much of Afghanistan. Initially we were looking for the many Kabulis that come up the hill to fly their kites on Friday. But this morning was very windy on the hill with the mausoleum of the former king near the stadium where many atrocities of the Taliban government happened, only a few soldiers were guarding the area. We interviewed one of them and I asked him whether I could take a picture and record him on video. While I was shooting he suddenly had a tear on his face. I don't know the reason. In this scene the normally strong and proud people unveil their hidden insecurity and state of brokenness thats many Afghans through the decades of war and instability have gone through. With this film we don't want to exclude the ongoing war but we wanted to show another reality of Afghanistan, which shows daily life that is still going on.

Q: The shots are often so long and intimate, how were you received by the subjects of your shots? Did you give them any instruction?

A: Afghanistan for most foreigners appears in disguise. Many westerners portray Afghans either as noble savages or evil terrorists. Why is that? In order to portray Afghanistan beyond the surface, or beyond the limited view we have on this country and its people, you need to build trust, and to get this trust you need to get on eye level with the Afghans and show them respect and sometimes just a few gestures of spending time for a few cups of tea. Learning the language during the first two years I lived there was one of the best investments I could make. It opened many homes for us and helped us to understand the views of the people. In Germany we expect a foreign correspondent in Washington to speak English as a given, but after more than 10 years of western interference still most of our correspondents report as "embedded" journalists, hence portraying the Afghans either as terrorists or victims. Many Afghans are disillusioned about the foreign involvement, some are even afraid to meet foreigners because thy can make them become a target for the Taliban. So when we met they were often suspicious at first, but after talking with them in their language, they became much more open. Most of the images, we shot as we came across them, because we want to show pictures out of daily life as it is. We didn't want to use a narrator, instead we sometimes ask the people to look into the camera. We wanted the viewer to feel approached by the direct look but to leave it open to everybody to react on that in his own way.

Q: What has been the reaction to your film so far? Any surprising reactions?

A: After publishing it in an iPad edition of Süddeutsche-Zeitung newspaper, we first posted our video on Facebook. Through social media it became viral within a few days. Now, after a few weeks it has been watched more than 300,000 times. Since then we have received many hundreds of comments and emails. We are overwhelmed by this great feedback. One, for example, was a father in the US whose two sons are in Afghanistan. He wrote us that he was touched by this film because the first time in his life he saw the place where his sons fight as a place where normal people live. Also many Afghans wrote us. They told us that they got tears in their eyes while watching because they felt given back their dignity but also because we have shown that there is beauty and life in their country that is worth hoping for and not to give up on the future. Many people have a connection to this country but at the same time it is so far away and difficult to get a balanced picture of reality there. We see that with this film, people can grasp a little bit more, of how Afghanistan is. We are very thankful for all the feedback and great encouragement. We just came back from Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia and the Arab Emirates and are exited to finish and upload future projects.

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