Phil Grabsky is an award-winning documentary film-maker. With a film career spanning 25 years, Phil and his company Seventh Art Productions make films for cinema, television and DVD. His biggest project to date is the creation of a unique new arts brand: EXHIBITION ON SCREEN. This brings major art exhibitions – and the stories of both the galleries and the artists – to a cinema, TV and DVD audience worldwide.
Thursday, 8 March 2012
Monday 5th March 2012 - more on Afghanistan
...It had only been two days since I had flown into Kabul for the first time. The destruction I saw below me reminded me of those famous aerial shots of endless burnt-out apartment blocks in 1945 Berlin. As we neared the airport itself, I stared wide-eyed at the upturned, torn-apart hulks of Afghanistan's national airline and air-force beneath us. Shell craters peppered their way alongside the runway and the control tower was a ridiculously bullet-ridden mess. What exactly had I flown into? Despite the chaotic nature of things, customs and passport control were brisk and before I knew it I was outside the terminal waiting for my pre-arranged taxi. As I waited, I reminded myself to be on my guard, as I was standing very near the spot where the Minister for Transport had arrived for a flight some weeks earlier and had been beaten to death by delayed passengers. This was a man who had returned from exile vowing to help rebuild his beloved country. What a stupid way to die.
Despite, maybe because of, this heightened sense of danger, the taxi ride to my guesthouse was exhilarating. The smells, the sights, the sounds. I noted that every lamp-post was pierced with bullet holes through which sunlight streamed, highlighted by the dust and fumes. Nor was there a building that was free of shell damage. It was extraordinary and very exciting. The guesthouse was called Everest and the two young Afghan owners, who had immediately seen an opportunity to make some money in post-war Kabul, were very welcoming. Some tea, toast and boiled eggs were placed on a table decorated with plastic roses in a cup of water. Nearby, gripped by music videos on the satellite TV, sat Iranian traders, a Pakistani journalist and, most remarkably, another film-maker. His name was Dennis O'Rourke and, to steal a line from the film Casablanca, 'of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world', what a coincidence that he was here! For, in some ways, it was his influence that had brought me to Kabul in the first place.
The feeling that I needed to change the way I made films had been creeping up on me throughout the 1990s. I loved making films for the BBC, Channel 4 and the Discovery Channel but this was unquestionably the start of a 'dumbing down'. Meanwhile, stories from outside the UK were frowned upon; reality strands were the new 'must-watch, water-cooler' TV. 'Big Brother' was a massive success and I remember how joyful its commissioning editors were. In private they told me that the worse the housemates behaved the happier they were. Personally, I was fed up with it. I didn't want to make series about British shopping centres and airports and ignore the other 200-plus countries in the world. As I was beginning to ponder just how to change things, I visited the Sheffield Documentary Festival. There I ignored the many sessions dealing with what commissioning editors were looking for; instead I sat for three days watching feature documentary after feature documentary. This was before Michael Moore came along and changed everything by making Fahrenheit 9/11. That film took more than $100m at the box office and, in doing so, opened up all sorts of doors. At this time, the very word 'documentary' was dirty to distributors and exhibitors. Few wanted them. And yet here in a dark cinema in Sheffield, I was seeing film after film where the film-makers clearly had felt compelled, no matter what, to make the films they wanted to make. One film in particular made a real impression on me. It was Dennis O'Rourke's Cunnamulla. What most impressed me was that he had shot it on his own with a small new Sony camera called the PD150. Now, when the history of film-making is written, a whole chapter ought to be dedicated to this piece of technology. This small camera changed everything. Costing only £4000, fully kitted out, these cameras were designed by Sony, apparently for the corporate market. But they made them so well that professional film-makers snapped them up - no longer did we need an expensive crew costing thousands a day - now, if you were a director who knew how to use a camera, as I did, you could pack all you needed in one case and hop on a plane. The only hurdle was your own indecision. People have asked if it was hard to get into Afghanistan? No, it was easy. I caught a plane to Islamabad then another to Kabul. I then caught a taxi and checked into a hotel where, bizarrely, I had bumped into O'Rourke.
Dennis was there making his own film - eventually called Landmines: A Love Story. We chatted over a beer and it was rather comforting that Dennis wasn't really sure what his film was to be about - the premise was to look at stories concerning landmines in three different countries. In the end, it was focussed entirely on Afghanistan. I too had come to Afghanistan with an incomplete vision; I just had the desire to find out for myself what Afghans were like. I wanted to know more about a country that seemed engulfed in a perpetual litany of horror. I remember at the beginning of July 2002 reading in the paper how an American AC-130 plane had accidentally bombed a wedding party in the Afghan southern province of Uruzgan. The Americans claimed they had come under fire but in fact they had just seen, from a great height, some wedding party members celebrating by firing their rifles into the air. The next thing those men and women knew a series of missiles arrived at 300mph out of the blue sky and blew them to bits. That was the moment I decided to go to Afghanistan and find out who these men and women getting married, getting killed, really were. Who were the Afghans trying to rebuild their lives after so many years of war? Who were the Afghans trying to stop them? I chose Bamiyan for the simple pragmatic reason that I thought people would recognise the name. But what the film was to be about, I wasn't sure. I vaguely assumed I would find a man and make a film about his life. I didn't consider focussing on a woman - I was sure I wouldn't get access. And I certainly never thought about a child...