‘Selling Kabul’: A minute-by-minute view of a struggling Afghanistan

Written by By Elizabeth Yuan, CNN

During a visit to Kabul, one will experience war, poverty, destruction and disillusionment. The immersive documentary “Selling Kabul” investigates what life is like for ordinary Afghans in the years following the fall of the Taliban.

Posing real-life questions for viewers, as opposed to abstractive artistic depictions, writer-director Jack Hillier began developing the project four years ago while working at the Guardian. With no resources, and with no particular travel plans, he initially planned to fly to Afghanistan and simply begin recording interviews. His initial impression? A country without strong economic foundations, still reeling from the refugee crisis of the late 1970s and early ’80s, torn by civil war and the events of 9/11.

On his way home, in the meantime, an idea began to crystallize. “I would return to the country to talk to Afghans about their fears and aspirations for the future,” Hillier explained. “I used my head to formulate questions to ask, and I was surprised that almost everyone spoke in first person.”

A staple of his press kit became a bulleted list of ten questions that he would ask. “They would carry out the questions, but most of them replied with the answer ‘yes,'” he recalled. “I also had more time. I could do the interviews over a long period of time, and I did a lot of them there and then.”

One of the people he interviewed was Amjad Farid. Farid was evacuated from the country in January 2001, after an attack on the president’s palace in Kabul. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve done,” he told Hillier. “That happened after I had moved back to Kabul from Sydney. I was away from my family for two years. Even if I’d been attacked, or injured or anything like that, it would have been too late. I would have been crushed and broken.”

One of the misconceptions Hillier set out to redress is that Afghanistan is a drug-plagued country. It’s not. “Afghanistan was one of the biggest world markets for heroin,” Hillier remarked. “That was a very stark and influential statement. And I was shocked by how many people bought it. By far the biggest market was the Persian Gulf countries, and they bought a large amount of it as well, but Afghans are the biggest users. By a country mile. The second biggest purchaser was China and India, but nowhere near the same scale as Afghanistan.”

The war scene

Hillier said he didn’t want the movie to be “an assignment to sell the war.” His approach, he explained, was to take stock of what was known and didn’t know about his subjects. In doing so, he pursued some of the same principles that directors like Michael Moore use in film about the American healthcare system.

“He doesn’t believe in that vested interest. He doesn’t believe you can expose injustice by informing people how they are being hurt by that injustice,” Hillier said. “There is a question that is haunting our culture: ‘Why are you being hurt by it? Why should I be pissed off at you?’ And it creates some frustration and anger in me as well.”

As for the war itself, Hillier doesn’t want it to go away. “I don’t believe it should be exciting or satisfying,” he said. “The film ends in what I’m calling ‘moment of hope.’ That’s what I aim for — that hope lives on. I guess optimism is different from faith. I think optimism is more important.”

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