(director/writer/cinematographer/producer: Taran Davies; editor: Penelope Falk; music: Andre Fratto; cast: Ad Sharza, Hadj Ahmed Zia Shamsadin, Hadji Ahmed Shamsadin, Najib Najibullah, Ali and Shukria Baig; Runtime: 58; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Walied Osman; Seventh Art Releasing; 2003)

“I learned more about modern Afghanistan in Afghan Stories than I did following the heavy media coverage during the war.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Shortly after the 9/11 catastrophe a New York investment banker turned filmmaker Taran Davies and Walied Osman, an Afghan-American entrepreneur, travel to Afghanistan to gain an understanding of how 24 years of war has affected the Afghan people. Before their journey, the filmmakers stop in Queens, New York to meet an outspoken older man, Ad Sharza, a member of the Afghan royal family. He returned to live in Afghanistan for five years and was charged as a CIA spy by the Taliban. He served a six months prison sentence, where he was tortured. Ad Sharza warns that they will find nothing but misery in his homeland: “We should drop an atomic bomb on Afghanistan and start from scratch.”

The first stop on the filmmakers journey is Tajikistan, the natural gateway to Afghanistan. While waiting for permission to cross the border, the filmmakers are invited to live with an Afghan refugee family. Ali was formerly a professor of journalism and his wife Shukria was a doctor. They have four children and live in a one room apartment. There is no work in their temporary country. Their best hope is to join Ali’s mother in Canada, but their visa application has been denied because of the crisis. Ali left Kabul to get away from the horrors of war and he tearfully tells how his house was bombed by the Mujahidin.

The filmmakers take a Soviet cargo plane and arrive in the part of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance. They journey to the remote town of Faizabad in Northern Afghanistan and reside with the town’s revered elder, Hadji Ahmed Shamsadin, and his commando son Zia. Zia takes them on a tour of the market places, streets, mosques, and refugee camps. Shamsadin muses that “the children know only war.” He urges the Afghans who have left to “Come home and rebuild your country.”

The next stop is Shari Bazurg. Their host is Najib Najibullah, a kindhearted local head of the UN’s World Food Program. He’s in the area to celebrate the construction of a road he has helped to build in collaboration with the local community. The area is controlled by a local warlord who leads the celebration. But rain causes a mudslide and the festivities are cancelled. So many others have left, but Najib stays because “I love my people and we should be with our people through the good times and bad.”

The filmmakers left Afghanistan as the Taliban regime fell. They return with a message of hope. The surprise the filmmakers receive is that the displaced Afghanis do not want to return. Ad Sharza says: “Without a police force and army, the country is still a dangerous place.” Though there’s more hope now than under the Taliban, the country is still very poor and in need of much international assistance. But I’m afraid there’s no oil, and America’s attention is now focused on Iraq.

Afghan Stories accomplishes its limited aims to record the faces of the Afghan people and tell their story how they survived since the Soviet invasion of 1979. The film presents a good portrait of the Afghan heritage and of the people’s courage to live in a war-torn country. The voice of the film is caring and offers a challenge for the Afghans to build a permanent peace. It was a good idea to shun the usual Afghanistan photos of terrorists and fighters, and instead have the story reach for the soul of the people. I learned more about modern Afghanistan in Afghan Stories than I did following the heavy media coverage during the war.

REVIEWED ON 4/23/2003 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”