Love is a crime, says an Afghan female prisoner in the new documentary Love Crimes of Kabul.
Though travails of the heart may seem trivial compared with the panoply of atrocities on display at the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival (June 16 through 30 at the Walter Reade Theater)which this year includes mass killings in Guatemala and Colombia, sex trafficking in Eastern Europe, and the intractable madness of the Arab-Israeli conflictthey turn out to be just as revealing.
Love Crimes of Kabul, which also premieres on HBO July 11, documents three inmates in Afghanistans Badam Bagh prison who have been imprisoned for moral crimes such as adultery and premarital sex. Iranian-Jewish American filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian says the film was originally inspired by two young lovers who were executed in 2009 for trying to elope in the Taliban-controlled area of Nimruz. But that region was too dangerous, so she decided to focus on the womens prison instead.
What I like to do is bring a little bit of understanding to the American public about what life is like over there by showing intense stories of people living at the margins, says the Manhattan-based Eshaghian, whose last film, the 2008 Berlin prizewinner Be Like Others, focused on transsexuals in Iran. By showing a nations outliers, she believes that the cultures social norms, however foreign to Western viewers, will become clear. As she explains, the minute someone transgresses a line, its apparent what that line is.
Rather than focus overtly on politics or military intervention, Eshaghian has a more humanitarian goal. I hope when you watch both films you identify with the characters, and the next time you see something about Afghanistan [or Iran] you can feel they are human like you.
She elaborates: Its important to understand who youre invading.
Indeed, Love Crimes characters are eminently relatable: a smitten 17-year-old, a headstrong adulterous divorcée who says her parents plan to quietly drown me, and a charismatic fiancée who uses the unjust court system to her own advantage. And unlike certain self-righteous human-rights docs, the movie paints a hazier picture of female subjugation. You cannot simply say these are women who are oppressed or poor things, says the filmmaker. The laws for women are terrible and they should be given more rights, but they still find ways to get what they want.
Still, the film shows how naïve it is for U.S. policymakers to believeor at least say that they believethat Afghanistan is approaching a stable and equitable democracy. (When Eshaghian was making the film, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside her hotel.)
Its not possible to change a culture overnight, she says. For instance, if someone came to the U.S. and said, From tomorrow, everyone has to wear a bikini every day, youd say, What? Its that same idea: The Americans are here; now you dont have to wear a burqa? Thats not going to happen. Women told me, If I take off my burqa, its going to signal to the men that you can molest me. At this point, its part of who they are.
For her next project, Eshaghian hopes to make a film about the elderly, possibly in her native Iran. While she has misgivings about returning to the countryIm not sure if its safe to go back now, she saysa documentary on the subject would likely be permitted. Its clearly not political if youre filming 80-year-olds, she saysthough given Eshaghians previous films, such personal subjects often are.
Love Crimes of Kabul screens June 2022 as part of the 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, hrw.org/en/iff/new-york
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