In 2011, I spent 3 months in Afghanistan making The Network, a film set behind the scenes at Afghanistan's largest media company, Tolo. The film is about the power of media to effect social change in a country. What interested me so much in the story was that it presented an alternative narrative from the one we were seeing being reported. I also thought it would be somewhat subversive to present a positive story about Afghanistan as the withdrawal of foreign troops approached. What I discovered is that it is isn't possible to tell a wholly positive story about a country that has only in the last decade emerged from 30 years of war and suffering.
I always knew part of the film would deal with women who worked at Tolo. Afghan women have suffered horribly under different regimes especially the Taliban, where they were confined to burkas, a life virtually indoors and unseen, without education, work and living in total subservience to men, often accompanied by horrific brutality. The women in the film elicit strong reactions from the audience and in many cases tears. I was excited to get to know some of the incredibly bright and brave women who work at Tolo who in some cases defy their families to pursue a career. Women represent about 20% of the company's over 800 employees, an extraordinary figure in a country where 12 years ago women were forbidden to work at all. Women at Tolo act in dramas, present news, direct, write, edit and more. But as with all things in Afghanistan, not all is rosy.
When I met Marina Zaffari she was working as a producer and presenter on one of Tolo's popular current affairs programs. She is bright, assured, articulate and beautiful. She was enthusiastic to appear in the film and have her voice and opinions heard. And she was not afraid to be critical of some of the programs produced by Tolo, the television station that employed her.
I stayed in touch with most people who appeared in the film and would email them all to update them on the progress of the edit and then as the film premiered and hit the festival circuit. I hadn't heard from Marina for many months and was concerned. When I inquired about her I didn't get a response. After some months I received an email from Marina. She told me since we had last met about a year earlier, she had met and married a lovely and educated Afghan man. Ahmad Javeed Ahwaar is a lawyer and a fairly outspoken critic of the Taliban. Marina had presented various programs that had also been critical of the Taliban and as a consequence they and their families received death threats from the Taliban and other fundamental radicals. Despite being proud and patriotic Afghans and wanting to contribute to their country's reconstruction, they knew their time there was up. Marina and Javeed decided to escape and when Marina contacted me they had been living in a refugee camp in The Netherlands for some months. Their application for refugee status had recently been denied. When she reached out they were waiting on their appeal and feeling hopeless.
I asked what I could do to help. Did she need money, warm clothes? Marina asked me to send a copy of the film to the IND (Immigration and Naturalization Bureau), which I did, along with a letter validating her story. Marina told me her attorney had suggested having her story published would be helpful, so I interviewed Marina, wrote an article that was published in the US and Europe.
Last week the film finally had its theatrical premiere in New York. Like most of the people that appear in the film, Marina follows me on Facebook and Twitter and I try and post all press and news so everyone stays connected. The day after the premiere Marina emailed me to congratulate me. I asked her if there had been any progress with her case. Below are edited excerpts of our correspondence:
About me, yes, I am good. We have started to fight here. The very first day of my asylum seeking I believed that Europe was going to be the land of justice and human rights. But now I see that also here I must fight for my rights. Isn't it so funny Eva?
For the third time I changed my lawyer. Now he is not a governmental lawyer but a great one. We originally asked for him but he had not time for me. But after reading your article about me he approved our case. He personally called me apologized about what the Netherlands immigration office did to us. I was very happy that day. I told him everything about our case and he promises that he will help us and is optimistic about our future here. Maybe in December I will have good news for you.
I will still follow the news of The Network.
I wish you a lot of success.
You can read more about Marina and her husband, A.J. Ahwar, on their website "The True Pen" where they express their views on political issues of Afghanistan in both English and Persian. The Network opened theatrically in New York and Los Angeles. It will be released on VOD platforms today, October 8 via FilmBuff.
Eva Orner, who makes her directorial debut with The Network, has produced several feature documentaries including the Oscar-winning Taxi To The Dark Side, Gonzo: The Life And Works Of Dr. Hunter S Thompson, The Human Behavior Experiments and Herbie Hancock's Possibilities.