Meena Nanji: View From A Grain Of Sand Print E-mail

View From A Grain Of Sand

By Meena Nanji

THE STORY: Scroll down for View video clip HERE

2001 saw an unprecedented level of international interest in the lives of Afghan women living under the Taliban. With the Taliban's fall later that year, the U.S proclaimed the dawn of a new era in Afghanistan that promised peace, democracy and liberation for women.

As the 7th anniversary of this "new era" is upon us, cracks in this story are beginning to appear. Afghanistan is once again in the news, not because of successful reconstruction, but because of increasing violence and the highest rate of opium production in the world.

And what about the women? Since 2001, the media spotlight on Afghan women has fallen, and with it, public knowledge of the current situation they face. What are their lives like now? Have they really improved since a new government took power? Have they gained any real rights or do they still live in fear and repression?

VIEW FROM A GRAIN OF SAND examines these issues through the eyes of three Afghan women: a doctor, a teacher, and a rights activist. Illustrated with footage, interviews and archival material, their personal stories lead us through the minefield of Afghanistan's complex history, and provide illuminating context for Afghanistan's current situation and the ongoing battle women face, even now, to gain basic human rights.

Shot over a four-year period in the sprawling refugee camps of north-western Pakistan and in the war-torn city of Kabul, the documentary constructs a harrowing, thought-provoking, yet intimate portrait of the plight of Afghan women over the last 30 years - from the rule of King Zahir Shah to the current Hamid Karzai government. The women are powerfully moving as they re-define strength and resilience in the face of on-going struggle, and give a full and visceral picture of a still divided and brutalized nation. As world attention has shifted to other crises, this project re-focuses the camera on Afghanistan, remembering the voices of those most vulnerable and most affected by the conflicts: women.

"View From A Grain Of Sand"

"'Gripping.' Nanji narrates this history with clarity and passion. Insightful, often heart-wrenching account of trauma, war and rights abuses."
Holly Willis
Los Angeles Weekly

What's it like to be a woman in contemporary Afghanistan? In her gripping documentary View From a Grain of Sand, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Meena Nanji answers this question through the specific experiences of three women: Shapiray, who fled the Taliban and, at the time of filming, was living in the barren New Shamsitu Refugee Camp in Pakistan, where she had become a teacher; Dr. Roeena, a doctor who fled Afghanistan during the country's civil war and struggles to aid women in another section of the Shamsitu camp; and Wajia, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a group dedicated to education and equal rights for women. By chronicling the experiences of these women, Nanji builds a richly textured history of radical change, moving from the 1960s - when urban Afghan women were able to attend school and were encouraged to seek professional careers - through the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to the current state of things, when life for many people in the country is untenable due to continued violence. (As one of Nanji's subjects notes, "There isn't so much as snake's poison there.") Mixing archival materials, interview footage and images of life in contemporary Kabul, Nanji narrates this history with clarity and passion, and the resulting film is an insightful, often heart-wrenching account of trauma, war and horrific rights abuses inflicted not just by men against women, but by the larger forces of religious, national and international power. More than that, it's a reminder of our need to understand the complexities of national and religious struggle in other parts of the world.

 Sunday Magazine ~~ October 5 2008


In search of progress


Sharp, simple reminders of major political facts are woven into a stunning cinematic fabric in Meena Nanji’s brilliant documentary ‘View From A Grain of Sand’.

This is not a war zone, but destruction is everywhere.

In Meena Nanji’s documentary the stories of three Afghan women’s lives are beautifully told and poignantly located in the enormously violent forces that have shaped Afghans’ lives. Millions have to leave or burn; one says, “There is not even snake’s poison here.”

Shapiray, who fled to a makeshift life in a camp in Pakistan, talks as she sits at a sewing machine, the only thing she took when she left her home north of Kabul. Her husband had been a freedom fighter, and they had always discussed the Afghan situation; but he had been killed in a Soviet ambush, and she sews to remember him. Her camp is not that makeshift either; some Afghans have been there for 20 years, and three million remain in Pakistan.

Shapiray does go back; she and her relatives rebuild the uncommandeered home they had fled when it was destroyed in the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. There is no running water and no electricity, but, having become a teacher while in Pakistan, should she stay here, where her new pupils’ drawings are all of war and death, or go back to the camp?

The other two women’s lives show other complexities. In Roeena’s childhood home in Kabul, boys and girls were totally equal, and under King Zahir Shah there were no dress codes; women wore skirts if they wished, went about freely, and followed all manner of occupations and professions. Roeena dreamt of being a pilot, and we see a woman driving a bus. In 1964, women got the vote, and forced and underage marriages were banned. Today ­ no kites, no music, no TV, and there are public beheadings, some secretly filmed by RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Nanji’s commentary evokes Thomas Hobbes ­ no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor,…

Larger systemic forces
But Afghanistan does not embody Hobbes’s dreaded collapse of the civil condition, because much larger systemic forces are at work. Zahir Shah’s urban rule was accepted by rural warlords ­ who regarded women as property ­ if he generally left them alone. After Zahir’s overthrow in 1973, a series of Soviet-imposed dictators upset the warlords, and in 1979 the Carter administration began funding anti-government rebels. Then the Soviet Union invaded with 100,000 troops, installing a puppet regime and bombing and imprisoning indiscriminately. But they ended the heroin trade, and urban Afghan women faced a dilemma: the modernisers were also occupiers. Roeena, now a doctor, continued treating the wounded.

With militias rampaging everywhere, millions fled, and Afghanistan became an ideological battleground; the United States was determined to oust the Soviet Union at any cost, in this case by funding Afghanistan’s most extreme, rigid, and bitterly misogynistic faction, the Taliban. In the 1970s, many of the Taliban had gone to Pakistan, where they had found a friend in the then dictator Zia-ul-Haq. The U.S., Nanji tells us, knew what the Taliban and the other Mujahideen were like, but as religious fundamentalism transcends national borders they enabled the addition of Saudi Arabian billions to the billions the U.S. was already giving the Taliban; in effect, the US funded, perhaps created, religious war in Afghanistan. The U.S. government even declared March 21 Afghanistan Day.

In 1989 the beaten Soviet Union withdrew, to western jubilation, and left 1.5 million dead. Afghan women faced the catastrophic consequences of becoming ‘acceptable targets for abuse in the name of religion’. Roeena now lives in Peshawar, and treats children in the camp, 40 kilometres away.

Wajia, the third woman, is as devout and faithful a Muslim as Shapiray and Roeena and, like them, is working out her own way of being one. Where Roeena pursues her career and strongly resists her mother’s pressure to get married ­ ‘Marriage is a point where I can’t learn any more’ – Wajia eventually agreed when her family found a decent man with a solid government job. She respects him and is more religious than he is, but is in no way bounden to his thinking. She does go back, for the first time in 25 years, taking her small son Haroon on his first trip outside the camp, and the bus moves from tree-lined Pakistani roads through barren passes and on to deserted roads clinging to craggy rocksides. This is not a war zone, but destruction is everywhere.

Destruction everywhere
Nasim of RAWA, face covered, says, ‘Even the trees have died.’ Girls can again go to school, but the U.S., apparently in search of Osama bin Laden, bombed all the wrong places and now funds the warlords; there is no peace or stability outside Kabul, and the burkha is de rigueur. President Karzai is relatively clean but admits he has little control; the posters in Kabul are of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic and non-fundamentalist Northern Alliance leader who was assassinated in the first week of September 2001.

Wajia is aghast at the beheadings: ‘Where in Islam is this?’ Like Roeena, she sees a country where a majority in the parliament are linked to armed groups and where constitutional rights are overridden by religious law. Should she stay?

The film weaves the stories with sharp, simple reminders of major political facts into a stunning cinematic fabric supported by a beautifully understated soundtrack and narrative. It has rightly won a string of international awards, and it made a huge impression on its first Indian showing at the Thrissur film festival.

Introducing the film in Chennai recently, Dr Lakshmanan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies quoted Ambedkar: ‘I measure the progress of community by the degree of progress which women had achieved.’

"searing, wide-reaching - an especially timely addition to the collective history of the plight of women under repression."
Robert Abeles ~~ Los Angeles Times November 9, 2006

Long-lasting plight

After the international attention given the plight of Afghan women when the brutal Taliban was being routed in 2001, the focus in the mainstream media went away, even though the struggle for a basic law-and-order respect for women's humanity was far from over. (And the Taliban isn't exactly dead, either.) All this makes Meena Nanji's searing, wide-reaching documentary "View From a Grain of Sand" being shown Monday as part of the Jack H. Skirball series at REDCAT an especially timely addition to the collective history of the plight of women under repression.

For five years starting in 2000, Nanji followed the lives of three women who escaped Afghan turmoil for a Pakistani refugee camp: Shapire, a teacher whose dreams of being a pilot were dashed by forced marriage; a sweet-faced, sensitive doctor from Kabul named Roeena; and Wajeeha, whose uneducated upbringing in rural Afghanistan has been supplanted as an adult by her activist work for the Revolutionary Assn. of the Women of Afghanistan. They are inspiring figures resourceful, sharp, warm and not lacking a sense of humor and they provide the necessary personal contours for a subject that needs human details to get its message across.

But Nanji's film is a history lesson too. She manages to cover 30 years of struggle for Afghan women, which has mostly, tragically, been a case of curbed-then-obliterated advances, beginning with grand notions of gender equality under King Mohammed Zahir Shah in the '60s and '70s and eventually slipping into open violence against women, enforced submission and the burka under Islamic fundamentalist regimes that grew after the U.S.-backed defeat of the Soviets in the 1980s.

Overall, the well-assembled mix of archival material, narration, hidden camera footage (the cloaking burka's unexpected benefit) and Nanji's interviews makes for a rigorous, sobering piece of social advocacy filmmaking.

"Disputing rosy media accounts of an improved situation for women, docu profiles three females who are barely coping with state of women's rights in their homeland. PBS-style filmmaking and storytelling makes this a sure item for pub tube airings and widespread international broadcasts."

Variety ~~ View From A Grain of Sand

As if a resurgent Taliban and an Afghan government in disarray weren't worrisome enough, Meena Nanji's study of the state of women in Afghanistan, "View From a Grain of Sand," adds another problem that deserves genuine concern. Disputing rosy media accounts of an improved situation for women, docu profiles three females who are barely coping with state of women's rights in their homeland. PBS-style filmmaking and storytelling makes this a sure item for pub tube airings and widespread international broadcasts.

Like "Beneath the Veil" (reported by Saira Shah and lensed before the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban) and Renee Bergan's 2003 "Sadaa E Zan," Nanji's project greatly benefits from assistance of the Revolutionary Assn. of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), the country's only organization empowered to shed light on a persistently severe climate where women remain second-class citizens. If pic sometimes feels close to an agit-prop work for RAWA, it's because the org provides the sole refuge for Afghan women.

Most impressively, Nanji relates recent Afghan history in a way that's less poetic but more purely informative and emotional than in David B. Edwards and Gregory Whitmore's recent "Kabul Transit."

A remarkable treasure trove of archival footage of Kabul in the 1960s-'70s reveals a modern-leaning city with a bustling economy and a thriving intellectual class -- and nary a burka in sight. Images underline a key point conveyed by Nanji's narration -- that the Taliban's oppressive brand of Islam, known as Wahabism, was utterly alien to the country before the 1990s.

More history passages demonstrate how U.S. support of Islamic fundamentalist rebels opposing invading Soviet forces in the 1980s actually planted the seeds for the Taliban's rise. Pic then shifts to a study of three contempo women -- Shapiray Hassan, Wajia, Roeena Mohmand -- all of whom want to help improve their homeland.

Hope, though, eventually seems quite slim as the women realize that their anticipated emancipation is far from reality. Nanji doesn't hesitate to lay considerable blame for the current problems on entrenched, medievalist warlords and the lack of U.S. efforts to dislodge them.

"..vibrant cinematography. we get a glimpse of the complicated, beautiful and tragic patchwork that is Afghanistan"
Frontline, London, UK ~~ February 2007, Issue 10

Review: View from a grain of sand

Ginanne Brownell, Newsweek film critic
Frontline Journalists Club, London/Frontline February newsletter

The road to Kabul is littered with the carcasses of war - Soviet army tanks left rusting in the arid landscape, overturned buses without wheels that will never complete their journeys and the gaping wounds of bullet-ridden buildings.

This is the scenery of modern Afghanistan. It is a country that has seen constant battle over the last three decades; first by way of a proxy war between Cold War superpowers, then civil war among ethnic groups which led to the rise of the Taliban and most recently the scars from the dominance of NATO. I cant believe what has happened to Afghanistan, says Wajia, a widowed Afghani refugee who fled her country almost a decade ago.

It is 2003 and this is Wajias first time back in the capital in 25 years. The city that used to have parks filled with trees and blooming flowers is now a dusty vision in brown. As she drives around Kabul with her son and a work colleague, who is covered up in a burkha, she appears at times almost despondent. Wajia has come back to Kabul on a fact- finding trip sponsored by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Wearing a black veil with an
intricate lace-like design she rests her chin on her palm. I thought I should feel safer in my country, but I dont, she says.

Wajia is one of three women that writer and director Meena Nanji follows in her riveting documentary View from a Grain of Sand. These women are only three voices in a choir of modern Afghani discontent.

Begun in 2000, Nanjis documentary starts with riveting images of Afghan women in a camp on the Pakistani/Afghan border. The faces of these women - revealed on camera as they take off their burkhas - tell the story of loss, struggle and survival. Bibi Gul, a charming elderly Afghan woman with few teeth and a pink veil, says there is little to make her go back to her country.
There isnt so much as snakes poison there, she says laughing.

But for Shapiray, a teacher with dark syrupy eyes, Afghanistan still holds out hope and a possible future for her family. Having fled the Taliban less than two years earlier, Shapiray and her family live in a dusty mud hut. It is her husband who actually is one of the highlights of the film, arguing with his wife that religion should be democratic and tolerant. And if Islam is the only religion, and
it is not tolerant, then it is not right? he says. Shapiray looks away. You get the feeling this is a discussion the couple have had before.

The third woman is Roeena, an unmarried doctor who travels from Peshawar very day to work in the camps. Having studied medicine in Kabul - she points out that she used to sit next to men in class - she fled to Pakistan during the civil war. Walking to school, it was like a dream to me, she says, reminiscing over her school days.

Throughout the documentary, Nanji uses archival footage to tell the history of Afghan women from the 1960s until the present. There are scenes of hip urban women walking down the streets of 1970s Afghanistan - a land where, since 1964, women had the right to vote. Underage marriage was banned and there were no laws on how women should dress. There were even campaigns to get women into the workforce - Nanji includes a fabulous television ad campaign aimed at recruiting female bus drivers. She then sweeps in with the political history of Afghanistan and its implications for women.

Nanji goes back to Afghanistan several times after 9/11 to check how her three subjects are coping. Both Roeena and Wajia have decided to stay in Pakistan even after the modernizing president, Hamid Karzai, comes to power. But Shapiray and her family go back to their home outside Kabul. It is bombed out. In her words: There is no one left, not even a fly. And yet though they are without electricity and running water they have hope of building up not just their home but their country as well. Her husband has a job in local government and she is teaching local children.

The beauty of this documentary - aside from a marvellous use of archival footage and its vibrant cinematography - is that Nanji does not preach about the future of this ravaged land. She lets the women tell their tales and through them we get a glimpse of the complicated, beautiful and tragic patchwork that is Afghanistan.

Global Rights Newsletter
Adam Shapiro, former Country Director, Global Rights, Afghanistan.

Meena Nanjis VIEW FROM A GRAIN OF SAND is a work of love and passion for a Afghanistan and the Afghan people long about whom a historical amnesia exists among those who have sought to lead/reform/intervene over the last three decades. The tragic and violent history that has defined Afghan life since the early 1970s is barely known in the West, which has utilized its own fixation with and neo-Orientalist attitude towards women in Afghanistan to justify post-9/11 military adventurism in the country. On the opposite side of the same coin, however, conservative forces indigenous to the country have utilized a unique and often questioned version of Islam and tribal code to impose their power over Afghan women as a means of asserting political authority.

In VIEW FROM A GRAIN OF SAND Ms. Nanji exposes this ongoing narrative and trend that has seen internal Afghan politics become subsumed to the politics of the burka, a development that is extraordinary, particularly in Kabul and other urban centers, given the pre-Soviet occupation efforts towards modernization. This point is brought to the fore by Ms. Nanji as she expertly intertwines rarely seen archival footage from the 1960s and 1970s with the contemporary stories of three Afghan women struggling to deal with the realities of war, displacement, refugee camps and loss. The film brilliantly captures that which has been the victim of this historical amnesia memory. As the black and white images of a Kabul where women shared in the political, economic and social development of the country provide background to the words of Dr. Roeena, one feels as if they are becoming intimately familiar with a secret. Despite the various media coverage of events in Afghanistan over the last five years, this film brings to the fore the story of the country as Afghans remember and know it, and as such is not just a documentary about its subject, it is a tool for revitalizing memory and authenticity in the public consciousness about Afghanistan and the Afghan people.

"Via interviews, narration, and vrit and archival footage, Nanji compellingly argues that the loss of women's rights in Afghanistan is not a simple story that revolves around the Taliban. It is a much larger-and continuing-story of a nation that has suffered through near-constant war and mass displacement over several decades."

Make/shift Magazine:~~ feminisms in motion
Jessica Hoffmann

Women in Afghanistan were not suddenly plunged into brutal un-freedom when the Taliban came to power in 1996. Nor have they always been subject to repressive rule. In a documentary that is both intimate and broadly political, Meena Nanji offers a view of the past thirty years of Afghanistan's history through the lives of three women.

Wajeeha is a literacy instructor and activist with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA); her husband died fighting against the Soviets in the 1980s. Roeena is a defiantly unmarried doctor who works in refugee camps populated mostly by people who fled Afghanistan when competing warlords reigned in the mid-1990s. Shapire, along with her husband and children, fled Afghanistan after the Taliban assumed power. She now teaches girls in a refugee camp.

Via interviews, narration, and vrit and archival footage, Nanji compellingly argues that the loss of women's rights in Afghanistan is not a simple story that revolves around the Taliban. It is a much larger-and continuing-story of a nation that has suffered through near-constant war and mass displacement over several decades.

A 1964 constitution implemented by then-king Zahir Shah established democracy and civil and women's rights in Afghanistan. For years, the nation was at peace, and urban women had access to education and jobs. But after the king was ousted in 1973, the nation descended into factional violence. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded to prop up a nascent Marxist regime, and the United States responded by developing a resistance movement of religious fundamentalists. For a decade, a U.S./Soviet Cold War battle was fought on, over, and with the land and lives of the Afghan people. Many fled to Pakistan and Iran.

And then, in 1989, the foreign powers withdrew, leaving Afghanistan with a power vacuum and an organized, well-armed movement of religious fundamentalists. From 1992 to 1996, competing warlords ruled. Another wave of people fled. In 1996, the Taliban came to power. U.S. readers should be well aware of what happened in Afghanistan in 2001.

The women in View from a Grain of Sand have lived through all of this. The film was shot in refugee camps and within Afghanistan over three visits-in fall 2000 (while the Taliban reigned and the world mostly ignored it); in fall 2001 (just after 9/11); and in 2003 (after the U.S. attacks, the fall of the Taliban, and the creation of a parliament dominated by the very same warlords who had reigned during the chaotic years of 1992 to 1996). Meena Nanji has documented her subjects' stories as they moved from obscurity to a focus of global attention. She has also documented the constancy of their struggles. These women's lives reflect continuous repression, lack of resources, and active work for change through a series of power shifts, all of which have been marked by violence and instability.

Nanji herself was born in Kenya to South Asian parents. She moved to England when she was a child and to the United States as a teen. This is her third film tracing the effects of disruption and displacement on people and cultures.