Filmmaker Q&A

A woman wearing a green tunic smiles off camera, surrounded by four young boys and a woman in a white headscarf
Filmmaker Sedika Mojadidi shares how her expectations about medical care for women in Afghanistan compared with what she saw there during filming.

I knew going in that Afghan women were dying in epidemic numbers along with infants and children throughout the country. Since the ’80s, medical and social conditions for Afghan women have steadily declined, leading up to the Taliban atrocities of the early ’90s, and I didn’t expect to find conditions markedly changed in 2003.

But when I arrived at Rabia Balkhi Hospital I was very surprised to find that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had been misrepresenting the improvements they’d announced on their Web site and press releases. Health and Human Services (HHS) was sponsoring the hospital, and on their official Web site Secretary Tommy Thompson had declared that Rabia Balkhi was a state-of-the-art facility where women were receiving topnotch medical care.

When we arrived, we expected to film the American staff working with Afghan doctors at the hospital. My father was going to be the central character bridging the Afghan and American worlds. But HHS asked us not to film certain distasteful areas of the hospital, like the bathrooms and patient delivery rooms. They told us that the American hospital staff was off limits for interviews and filming. They clearly did not want us to show what a mess the hospital was. It was a disaster zone. There was no functioning plumbing or bathrooms; patients were delivering on the same plastic sheets one after the other all day long. The hospital had up to 80 deliveries a day. There was no sterilization, no infection control, little pain management; the hospital lacked the most basic supplies. I was shocked by what I saw.

Filmmaker Sedika Mojadidi reflects on the challenges, heartbreaks and rewards of turning a camera on her father in Afghanistan as he worked to save lives in near hopeless conditions.

What led you to make this film?

I was working in New York City as a field producer and cameraperson on labor and delivery medical shows for cable television. I learned quite a bit about maternal health, pregnancy and how a hospital functioned. But I felt I needed to develop an independent project of my own. I wanted to use my experience working on medical shows, and the opportunity presented itself when my father was asked to work at Rabia Balkhi Women’s Hospital in Kabul in 2003. Since I was born in Kabul, I have always had a yearning to see what it was like for myself. And I wanted to personalize the maternal mortality crisis through the eyes of my father, an OB/GYN who had dedicated his life to working with Afghan women.

What was it like filming with your father?

It was hellish and wonderful at the same time. He didn’t want to be in the film, and I struggled getting him to be available for us on camera. He fought me every day, and in the end I wish that I had been able to emotionally develop his story more. But I was given the chance to experience some really difficult situations with him and his patients. I was able to see my dad in a completely different light, and I became closer to him.

What were some of the greatest challenges you faced in making this film?

There were so many! It was my first independent long format project and I was going to film it overseas and I didn’t have any experience organizing and coordinating a shoot of this caliber. There were financial challenges every step of the way. I had to put all of my savings into the first shoot in 2003, and I was naïve about what filming in Rabia Balkhi would be like. The hospital was chaotic, unsanitary and disorganized. It was difficult to complete a story without getting interrupted by patients wandering into the shot and talking to me, asking me for money, asking me to help them get visas for America. Plus, I had to translate everything for my cinematographers, and shooting was very difficult for them because they had no idea what anyone was saying most of the time. I would just hold my breath in a scene hoping they would get the right shots. Of course after a while, both Erika and Helen were intuitively picking up the right elements in the stories. Making a documentary is such a solitary experience. I was challenged everyday with keeping my commitment to finish the film, even when I had no idea how I was going to do that.

What was it like to film in Rabia Balkhi Hospital and how did Afghan families and patients react to your presence and purpose there?

Filming in Rabia Balkhi was difficult, but also a life-changing opportunity. I was forced to see a small section of daily life in Kabul for Afghan women in a very intimate way. I had the chance to listen to so many tragic stories and to get a sense of how much these women had survived. I definitely did not see them as victims. Rather, I saw tough, tenacious and industrious women who were struggling to keep themselves and their children alive.

At first, the Afghan families and patients were curious, especially about me, since they don’t normally see Afghan women filmmakers hanging out at a hospital for a month! Once they realized that my father was Dr. Mojadidi, I’d say that most patients were hoping we could help them financially or politically. I think they thought I had a lot of money. If they only knew how much a documentary filmmaker makes! Other patients wouldn’t talk to us at all. I remember one woman saying, “All you people do is come and steal our pictures and go back to America and what do we get in return? Nothing.” In some ways I thought she was right. But there were also women who were very open and willing to be interviewed. They seemed to be so happy to have someone listen to them, which taught me how powerful and healing it can be to witness someone’s story.

Of the several women patients followed and filmed in Rabia Balkhi Hospital, which story stood out to you most, and why?

Kakujan’s story really hit me hard emotionally. She had been living with her incontinent condition for four years hoping a doctor could help her and I just couldn’t imagine what that must have been like. I went home with her after she was discharged and saw the tiny house where she and about 10 family members lived. I was overwhelmed with sadness and helplessness. This family had nothing but two small rooms with dirt floors and no running water. There was an open sewer outside their house. In addition, they were evicted from their house and had nowhere to go. I started crying after we finished shooting with them. I felt helpless a tremendous amount of the time.

In the film your mother is less involved with treating patients than your father. How did she feel about her role as a doctor in this cultural setting?

My mom was less involved because she is a family medicine doctor, whereas my dad is an OB/GYN specializing in high-risk pregnancies. My mom was primarily involved in family planning and outpatient visits. Unfortunately, we didn’t film a lot of those stories because the focus was my father’s work. The women who came to be examined by my mom just loved her. I think it was very encouraging for them to see an Afghan woman from an older generation who was educated, taking care of them and talking to them from the perspective of someone who grew up in Kabul. Afghans who aren’t extremists are generally very accepting of female doctors because culturally Afghan women are the most comfortable with women doctors. I think my mom felt very happy to be able to advise and treat Afghan women at the hospital. She, along with my dad, had always planned to practice medicine in Kabul before the war took all of that away from her. I think she felt a great deal of satisfaction to be able to work as a doctor again in her hometown.

Did your impressions of American involvement in Afghan health care change as a result of making this film?

That’s a huge question. Watching the past 25 years of war and destruction in Afghanistan and tracking the U.S./CIA involvement with the Soviet Afghan War in the 1980s led me to a pretty cynical view of American foreign policy in that region. When the U.S. invaded in 2001, I hoped the government would redeem themselves for the mistakes of the ’80s. I went to Kabul expecting that American involvement could produce valuable results for both Afghans and Americans, and I do believe Afghanistan is in markedly better shape now politically and socially than it was during the Taliban or the civil war. But in terms of Afghan health care, U.S. allocation of funding has been comparatively superficial and cosmetic. I think the priority needs to be developing and educating the people of Afghanistan.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I hope the film will make viewers think a little differently about the country, about the stereotypes American audiences have been fed about Afghans. I hope people will watch the film and feel like one person can make a difference in lives of other people. I hope it motivates viewers to take on more challenges in their own lives and move to change the world.

Over what period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude? Any updates on the people and what they have been doing since then?

Filming began in August 2003. We filmed for six weeks. In 2005 we returned to Afghanistan and filmed for two months. It’s been very difficult to receive updates on our patients because the women in Kabul no longer live in their respective homes and there were no patient records at that time at Rabia Balkhi. As for the women in Jaghori, it’s also been difficult because both women live in remote areas of Central Afghanistan.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

I don’t know what keeps me motivated. The independent film business is grueling and brutal. The people I film keep me motivated. It’s a gift to be able to connect with people and have a chance to record their lives on camera. I feel an obligation to making sure their stories are seen. The people I have been lucky enough to work with also keep me motivated. But it’s a daily process. Some days are better than others.

What are you working on now, or next, and how do you find documentary projects?

I am working on a script right now about a young woman who comes to America through an arranged marriage and her life with her new husband. It’s a story of transformation and what it means to become an “American.”

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

I always felt that public television would be the best venue for our film because we could reach a large and diverse documentary audience and because PBS would give a certain amount of freedom to us that other networks would not grant.

What are your three favorite films?

3 Women
Vivre Sa Vie
On the Waterfront

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Don’t get involved with this business unless you really feel you have something different to add to the dialogue. It’s so grueling and thankless most of the time that you have to really feel like you have something valuable to contribute during the dark hours. That will be what keeps the fires burning.

Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?

Chris Marker
Chantal Ackerman
Barbara Kopple

If you could have one motto, what would it be?

Never ever, ever give up.

What sparks your creativity?

Anything could. Being in nature is always good, talking to friends about my ideas, watching films and reading.

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