With his stirring documentary Afghan Stories, director Taran Davies puts a unique spin on the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Instead of focusing on the United States (or New York in particular), Davies concentrates on Afghanistan, which has been at war for 24 years. Afghan Stories is really one man’s desire to learn about the country that the United States bombed. Davies quit his financial job soon after September 11th to concentrate fully on directing—that Afghan Stories is dear to his heart vibrantly resonates throughout the picture.
The film really shines with its attention to various aspects of Afghan life, and the attitudes that the inhabitants and natives possess. Davies is accompanied on his trip to Afghanistan by Walied Osman, an Afghan-American from Brooklyn. We’re introduced to him early on, and despite never having lived in Afghanistan, he has a burning desire to aid the revival of his country. This is both startling and educational; Osman’s understated compassion for Afghanistan feels quietly shattering. The unpretentious direction never seems strained, despite the great pressure that Davies was under while filming (being in a strange, war-ravaged contry), and it’s the main reason that Afghan Stories succeeds as a film, rather than feeling like a history lesson.
During their journey, the duo encounters the following:
• A former member of the Afghan royal family who was tortured by the Taliban, and now lives in Queens. His hatred for the Taliban and the country is searing. He says, “We should drop an atomic bomb on Afghanistan and start from scratch.”
• An Afghan family of refugees that was denied visas, and thus can’t leave the country to be with their family in Canada.
• An elder who’s revered like a King.
• A construction worker who has recently completed a new road, in an attempt to do his part to heal the tattered countrysides.
All have different opinions on what needs to be done to rebuild Afghanistan and allow it to prosper. Davies uses a handheld camera to capture not only the characters and their dialogue (the film is half English, half subtitled), but the rugged Afghan scenery. Handheld cameras often produce somewhat choppy visuals and here is no exception, but it feels oddly fitting, considering the turmoil that Afghanistan was mired in during the shooting. Hence, the aforementioned scenery feels eerily distant, but no less beautiful.
If there’s a problem with Afghan Stories, it’s that the film feels too short. At just 58 minutes, less time is spent developing certain characters, leaving an occasional superficial, glossed-over feel. A lot of time was obviously spent in the editing room, perhaps too much. There’s no reason this couldn’t have been a 90 minute documentary that would have ultimately been slightly more fulfilling. As it stands, though, Afghan Stories is a rewarding and almost essential look at the other side of terrorism: it’s not just the United States that feels the pain.