By Aisha Azimi for Free Women Writers – When she came out and demanded justice for facing incest and other forms of physical and sexualized abuse at the hands of her father for more than a decade, Khatera became an overnight hero for many in Afghanistan. Her battle for justice, however, was far from easy. A new film titled “A Thousand Girls Like Me” by filmmaker Sahra Mosawi-Mani tells Khatera’s story as she tries to overcome and heal. Sahra is a prominent filmmaker and the founder of Afghanistan DocHouse based in Kabul. We were fortunate enough to speak with her about her recent film.
Aisha: Sahra jan, can you tell us a little bit about how you started in film?
Sahra: I was introduced to documentaries by my father. When I was a child, he would watch films like Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of North” and I always sat next to him. I grew up an Afghan refugee child in Iran and couldn’t pursue my passion. As refugees, we didn’t have the right to go to school and work or even travel inside the country. When I was 23 years old, I managed to move to the United Kingdom. My new life started when I was accepted by London University of the Arts. I started studying cinema and received my master’s degree in documentary filmmaking. In 2012, when I graduated from university, I decided to go back Afghanistan, hoping I could do something for my country.
Aisha: “A Thousand Girls Like Me” is difficult to watch and incredibly important. What is the message you hope audiences walk away with after watching the film?
Sahra: I want the film to help people think about what happens to a country where for decades war has been a daily reality and corruption has seeped deep even in the level of the family and society. I also want to bring attention to a judicial system that often gives power to abusers and tell the story of the lonely lives of three women from three different generations, a grandmother, a daughter, and a granddaughter, all victimized in the hands of a man empowered by a patriarchal society.
Aisha: How can audiences take action to support women in Afghanistan and help bring justice to cases like Khatera’s?
Sahra: I know that I cannot changes the judicial system only by making films but bringing this subject to public discourse is the first step. Women like Khatera want to raise their voice and I have this ability amplify it. Among my audiences are policy maker, students, future leaders, artists, decision makers, judges, lawyers, neighbors, survivors, teachers… I want everybody to start talking about how we treat women in our society and in our justice system.
Aisha: Khatera’s inspirational courage translates profoundly on screen. How did you build a relationship with her that allowed her to be so genuinely herself?
Sahra: To be able to share someone’s pain, you have to experience that pain. I tried to feel Khatera’s pain. I lived with her about two and half years. I cried with her. I laughed with her. I was threatened because of my work with her. I had hundreds of hours of footage and spent a year and half working in the editing room. My relationship with Khatera went beyond a filmmaker’s. I tried to help her escape the difficult situation she was in. I was able to use the film to advocate for her to be resettled in France where she has been able to start a new life. Throughout this time, I was inspired by Khatera’s courage as she fought for her rights. Her case is an anomaly because she was able to use DNA testing that led to her father being found guilty of incest and murder. He will likely will be sentenced to death. This happened because she was courageous enough to speak up.
Aisha: What were some of the challenges you faced while filming?
Sahra: I was harassed a lot. On occasion, when there was a crowd around us while filming, I was physically harassed. I was pushed so I’d lose my balance while filming. Sometimes, people cursed at me. Passersby who had no authority to do so would ask me to show them my press card and introduce myself, even though I am an independent filmmaker. Of course, street harassment isn’t something only I’ve dealt with. All Afghan women and girls have experienced it in major cities. However, since I was walking with a camera, I was often asked why I was photographing. I never filmed anyone without their consent, but there were always people who reacted negatively to my presence.
Other than harassment, I also faced two discouraging trends in the behaviors of my male colleagues. One trend is that because I am a woman, I am expected not to take myself or my work seriously. This group always belittles women’s accomplishments. The second trend is that because I am a woman even if my work is not strong, I should be given accolades. This group always makes comments about how filmmaking is easier for women because we are supported simply because we are women. These attitudes harm the self-confidence of women in our field.
Aisha: Who are some directors who have influenced you?
Sahra: Some of my favorite women filmmakers are Kim Longinotto and Nancy Platt. I also like Sahrmeen Obaid’s documentaries. I think she is brave to highlight the dark side of Pakistani’s women lives. Kirsten Johnson’s documentary “Cameraperson” is powerful. I also enjoy Patty Jenkins’s films, specially “Monster”.
Aisha: What advice can you offer to young women and girls who are dream of becoming a director and embarking on a path like yourself?
Sahra: If you want to be filmmaker, you have to be crazy and very hardworking. A filmmaker is often a person who has no life and no money but a lot of work and many dreams. Being a lover of cinema is not enough to keep you in this field. You must also acquire knowledge, skills, and experience.
About the author – Aisha Azimi is pursuing her BA in Communications in Washington, DC. A member of Free Women Writers and Partnerships Director for the Love Your Natural Self foundation, Aisha is dedicated to helping girls gain the confidence and resources they need to reach their dreams.