It’s so easy to take images for granted in our media-saturated, selfie-happy culture, but that’s a luxury the subjects of Frame by Frame can’t indulge in. Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli’s documentary explores what it means to the people of Afghanistan to have been forbidden by the Taliban to take or own photographs by following four documentary photographers who live and work in Kabul. Though there’s been, as one of the photographers says, a “photography revolution” in Afghanistan since the Taliban were driven from power, it’s still a new and fragile art form with very few professional practitioners. As a result, these photogs—Massoud Hossaini, Farzana Wahidy, Najibullah Musafer, and Wakil Kohsar—know each other well (in fact, Moussad and Farzana are married). They’re united by their sense of mission—convinced that, as Najibullah puts it, a nation without images of itself “does not have an identity at all,” and that it’s their responsibility to help create an accurate visual record of their beloved, beleaguered country.
They’re also united by the same kind of shared understanding that bonds fellow soldiers. Last year, as a title card informs us, was the most dangerous one for journalists in Afghanistan, who are frequently targeted by Taliban and others who want to re-impose Sharia law, and the film is dedicated to a recently killed colleague from the Afghan news bureau where Massoud works. Threat constantly shadows the photographers, with the film capturing attempts to curtail their activities or stop them cold. Farzana, who specializes in documenting the women that so many men want to keep hidden, is especially prone to being challenged by burly, often gun-toting men.
The widescreen frame leaves room for photographs by the film’s subjects, and filmmakers’ footage, to include a wealth of background detail, placing the photogs in a larger social context. One scene takes place between Farzana and a doctor in the hospital where she’s come to shoot burned women for a series on self-immolation, which appears to be mainly—or possibly entirely—a fiction invented to cover the common practice of husbands and in-laws setting women on fire. Farzana and the doctor argue inside a glass booth, privacy screens and the occasional splinted and mummy-wrapped limb of a burn victim visible in the hospital room in the background, as the doctor insists that Farzana go home without taking pictures. His reasons escalate, some sounding desperately real and some invented—until she accepts his refusal. He finally gets to what are likely the real reasons for his fear: The daughter-in-law of a powerful friend of Hamid Karzai is on the burn unit, and a powerful mullah in town has threatened to torch the hospital and would surely carry through on his threat if he learned that someone was taking pictures of women there. Farzana protests, saying they can’t let one person stop them from doing what their jobs. “But this is how it is,” he says.
On their own time, the photographers confide freely in the filmmakers, their trust evident in the intimate moments they share. Farzana and Massoud spar affectionately, Najibullah plays tenderly with a child or grandchild in his home, Wakil prays. The camera is also there to capture their own stories—sad tales of joining the trail of refugees that flooded places like Pakistan and Iran after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and worse—and to catch them interacting with the subjects of their photos.
Visiting Tarana Akbari, the little girl in his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the aftermath of a suicide bombing, Massoud tenderly holds the hand of her “shy, quiet” little sister, who was nearly killed in the bombing. Wakil gently urges a drug addict to get treatment, calling him “dear brother.” Farzana tears up as she listens to a woman burned by her in-laws, who tells a heartrending story of her near-fatal burning and enforced separation from her then-six-month-old daughter, who’s been in the sole custody of her ex-in-laws and husband ever since. And Najibullah shares video he shot—video so painful he has never shown it to anyone before—of people murdered as the Taliban from northern Afghanistan, killing all the “undesirables” they could as they went. “My heart was crying, but I had no tears left to cry,” he says.
“Photojournalists have to have empathy,” one photog says. The film illuminates the depth of their empathy, and the heroism of these four individuals, who risk their lives to document those of their fellow Afghanis.
SXSW runs from March 13—22.