Los Angeles native Ariana Delawari's documentary We Came Home follows her father's return to his homeland of Afghanistan to build the new financial system after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, yet this story goes far beyond politics and war. It's Ariana's moving journey of love and understanding for her family, the music of Afghanistan, and the beauty of the Afghan people. It was a blessing to interview Ariana, considering how much is unfolding with the success of her film on the international festival circuit, her career as a musician, and an activist with a voice for peace and intercultural understanding.
Erin: Please talk about the inspiration that fueled the making of We Came Home.
Ariana: I think as citizens in the world right now we can get so frustrated or feel powerless with government. And then when you actually start meeting people one on one, you realize there are human beings within these systems. If we (as storytellers) do the work and create something that can penetrate, it actually can touch hearts and affect people to create changes.
Afghanistan has its own timing, and it's sort of an energetic thing. We got called to do something and put this effort into it, but the film will be born when it serves Afghanistan the most. I really feel in my heart that it's such an important year for Afghanistan. I could've finished this film four years ago. It would have been a different story, but there was something inside saying, "It's not ready yet. There's more to the story. Keep going." So many things changed as we kept shooting, and all of that was meant to be in the film. I believe that it's a crucial time. We don't know what's going to happen with the withdrawal and with the elections. We're in this precious moment. Why I've done any of this art about Afghanistan is to serve Afghanistan. There's a surrender knowing that there was something that called me in the first place to make this whole thing and go on this journey. That is continuing to guide me.
Erin: What were the main challenges of your creative process?
Ariana: The first few years of going to Afghanistan were pure joy. It was thrilling, beautiful, soul opening and an expansive experience of finding my love, of finding my long lost home and the part of my heart that was waiting to blossom. I was just in love with Afghanistan: everyone I met, every face, every bit of the landscape, and everything about it. I couldn't stop capturing it in photos and film. I didn't have a plan of what the film would be or anything. I was just capturing my journeys.
When I started to see it fall apart, the first challenge came, which was an emotional challenge. As I was coming of age in a way, I was realizing the gravity of what it would mean for all these friends that I've met and for this country. What would it mean for these people if it went backwards? Suicide bombings started to emerge in 2005. I was there in Kabul and I felt a change. I came back and started frantically writing all these songs about Afghanistan. It was interesting because at the time I was an actress. I had been acting for many years and my career was just starting to blossom. I had just done 'The Sopranos', 'Entourage', and all these things that are exciting as an actor. I came back from Afghanistan and had this moment of "Wow, just as this is blooming, I have to let it go because I have to make this album here. I have to make a film about it." I had this call that said, "Now you have to put all your energy into Afghanistan, because who else is going to do it the way that I'm supposed to do it?" That's when I decided that I wanted to make an album there. I started writing all this music about it, while seeing it get worse and worse.
When we decided to record there, lots of doors opened. We got the musicians on board quickly. My dad was practically an executive producer in Kabul. He was helping to arrange that part of it. We had the equipment promised to us. Within three months we had pre-produced everything. We were on the plane, and then we get there and everything is hard. The promises with the equipment changed. It went from "You have three weeks with the equipment" to "You have four days."
Once we started recording, everything you could imagine went wrong. We couldn't get the equipment to work. We were supposed to have an engineer the whole time, but we only had him for a day. Neither my band mate nor I had ever produced an album, so we had to learn on the fly. Then the electricity blew and the generator died. Then all of the sudden it's the weekend; the traffic was horrendous and we had to nail dusty carpets (for sound proofing) to every single wall in my parents house.
At that point we weren't getting along as well because we were so stressed out, so the energy in the room was different. Finally, when we finished the recordings and said goodbye to the musicians, we had a few more days in Kabul. We played a live show at this French Expat party. I had a bite of a tomato and got deathly sick. During the last few days in Kabul, I was the sickest that I had ever been in my life. We couldn't enjoy it after all that work. When you're recording like that, you're in a compound; you're not getting fresh air. You're not going for walks. It's hard enough when you're recording an album. You need those breaks. There were no breaks. We had stress and armed guards at the compound. After all of this was said and done, we didn't get to see much of the country. We left Afghanistan, and then my producer loses her passport in Dubai. Finally at the end of seven days of sitting in Dubai, she finds it, just as she was issued a new one.
Erin: Is the final edit of "We Came Home" what you expected?
Ariana: We thought the footage was basically going to be about the music and the trials and tribulations of making an album. I showed my producer five years of footage of my journey and these interviews of my parents; I had also thought about making just a feature film about my parents. When she saw all of this, she said, "All of this is the film!" It dawned on me that this thing had been coming through me that I didn't realize was being made. My parents didn't think their interviews would be used for the film, so there was a rawness in doing it this way; they didn't know this would end up on a screen. You can't recreate that. That's so special. It was two in the morning. I was just drinking tea with my mom in Kabul asking her to tell me stories without the thought of "this is going to be a film".
The ascetic of this film had to be so raw, because it happened so organically. I started going through the garage after that trip in 2009 and digitizing so much footage--VHS tapes, super 8mm film, and everything that we had in our family archive. When it came to these VHS tapes, we could’ve gotten the real footage from the news station, but for 20 years, my dad had blank VHS tapes next to the VCR player. Anytime there was news about Afghanistan, he'd hit record. So there was our archive. We didn't have to go looking. It was there, and when we digitized it, it looked so gritty, grainy and bleached out. I didn't want the real footage. I thought, "I want the audience to watch this and have the feeling of what 20 years in the garage meant because that's the silence of what my dad experienced.
Erin: And that's Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been in the garage for more than 20 years.
Ariana: Exactly, so those were the kinds of decisions that I made. On that trip in 2009, I really hit rock bottom. The energy there felt grim. I came back and I was a mess for a year. We assembled the post team, and in the summer of 2010, we started a Kickstarter fund that ended up raising 23 grand. It was a full year of editing. When the film was finally done, I felt the heaviness lift. I felt "Finally, I'm telling this story and maybe it can do something! Maybe this story can help the situation in Afghanistan."
Erin: Watching your film, I really felt the spirit of the Afghan people. You captured them in a way that I haven't seen with other films about the country. Was this your intention?
Ariana: That was my main goal. You experienced the spirit of Afghanistan and that was what changed my life. Afghanistan brought so much joy to my life, and I wondered how do I go on with my life and my opportunities when these people I love so much ... they're so generous. How do I not give it back? They gave me so much.
As we were editing, a big challenge was making sure that the spirit of the people was always in the film. Especially because I'm in the film, I felt really sensitive about any kind of vanity. I just wanted to be the pied piper. I wanted to take the audience on this journey and really wanted the film to be more about my dad, the musicians, and the country. I wanted to be a doorway for the essence to come through and really this land of people, the spirit of generosity and love that has been the most important part of my entire life. I wanted to give a gift to the audience, so that no matter what happens, they walk out of this film and they feel the generosity of Afghanistan has given them something for their life.
Erin: What do people who haven't been to Afghanistan say about your film?
Ariana: They all say that they want to go to Afghanistan. They all thank us for telling the true Afghanistan. I hear that so often, and Americans always say, "The whole world has to see this film. They have to see this film because this is the true Afghanistan. They need to know how beautiful it is." This is the biggest message. I wanted people to get excited from the journey and go on it with us so they're like, "Wait a minute. I want to go there now!” On a universal level, I wanted people to say, "Well if that's Afghanistan, I wonder what all these other countries are. What is this world we're living in? What are these different places?" All of them are magical. All of them are beautiful, and there are gifts everywhere. We're not here to fight over it. We're here to celebrate it.
Erin: Please talk about the power of film to shift consciousness on the global scale.
Ariana: I feel that story is something that transcends logic. When a story is told well, we enter a reality, and yes we can absorb facts and information more easily because we've entered another reality. More than anything, it's an education of the heart if storytelling is done right. I think that reaching people's hearts is more transformative than just facts. Another thing is that when we watch a story, and when we go on a journey, it becomes a part of us. It becomes personal and experiential, without even having to go experience it. I think it's the ultimate form of empathy in a time when there's so much changing in the world. There's so much to change. Systems are breaking down, and we don't have all the answers. No one does, but we have a tool that we can share and use to educate each other. The solutions can emerge, the more that we share through film. We're in a time of this exponential explosion of communication in the world. It's a part of our transformation, to create the new systems, to create the new narrative. We're essentially writing our new story together. We're telling our stories and the stories of our past to write a new one together. If we embrace what's happening with this opening of communication, then maybe the new story of the world is a story of peace and equality.