Afghanistan's progress, uncertain future captured in "The Network"

by Katie Nguyen and Claudine Boeglin | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 12 September 2013 11:26 GMT

An Afghan news reporter stands next to TV screens at Tolo television, owned by Saad Mohseni, the country's biggest media mogul, in Kabul July 6, 2010. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

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Saad Mohseni and his family set up TOLO TV, the first independent television network in Afghanistan - tapping into viewers' deep desire to be educated, informed and entertained

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Under the Taliban, a public execution staged in Kabul's soccer stadium was considered to be entertainment.

So many Afghans were shot or stoned to death there that even after the Taliban were ousted in 2001, people believed the souls of the dead still roamed the sprawling grounds.

The defeat of the Taliban, feared for their austere brand of sharia (Islamic law), encouraged Afghan exiles to come home to reshape the country which had for decades known little but conflict and killing.

One family that boarded one of the packed planes bringing Afghan expats back to kiss the tarmac at Kabul airport were the Mohsenis. Within a decade, Saad Mohseni, his two brothers and sister had built a network of two radio stations and three television channels producing 15 hours of in-house programmes a day and employing 900 people.

The story behind Afghanistan's answer to media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and his TOLO TV, the first independent television network in the country, is told in "The Network", a new documentary by Australian director and Oscar winner Eva Orner.

Despite having no previous experience, Mohseni understood his audience, tapping into their deep desire to be educated, informed and entertained.

The result? A wildly popular schedule of soap operas, children's programmes, news bulletins, game shows and talent contests.   

"You go into villages that haven't seen the wheel yet, and a television is hooked up to a car battery and 50 people are watching Tolo," Dexter Filkins, a writer at The New Yorker, says in the film.

Orner said her aim was to present a view of Afghanistan that was stripped of the cliches of burka-clad women and gun-toting tribesmen.

"I wanted to show an Afghanistan that you haven't seen before. I think there's such a bad perception and I wanted to show people who are educated, people who are clean, people who speak English, people who have jobs," Orner told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. "Sure, they are a small, elite percentage of the population but that's the way the country is heading, and should head."

And in that she succeeds.

BEHIND THE SCENE SCENES

The film features a cast of Afghans and foreigners worthy of a primetime soap opera.

There is German-born Andi Wilmer, who says that when he took on the job of managing the production department, he knew he had to "lead the company like a general".

Hiring, firing and lecturing the local staff, he shows a soft side when describing the struggles and sacrifices of the female employees. Some women work a full day, attend university in the evening, then go home and are expected to cook for the rest of the family. Others are beaten by their fathers or husbands but are allowed to go to work for the money they earn, he says.

There is Trudi-Ann Tierney, the head of drama, an Australian who intended to go to Afghanistan for a few months but ended up staying more than two years; and Karima Hassan, a make-up artist who learns how to produce cuts and bruises for actors in a police show from tips downloaded from YouTube.

The film is full of gems such as the scene in which senior producer Muffy Porter addresses two Afghan producers who have had a fight on set and been thrown out of the restaurant where they were meant to shoot a sequence.

"The job is to finish the job," she tells them. With a handshake and a kiss, peace is restored. "Let's make up," one producer says to the other. "I'm still mad at you though."

In another delightful scene, Orner films the reaction of Afghan TOLO employees who are visiting the United States for the first time. In their hotel room in New York one of them, a beaming cameraman, bops to Jay Z's "Empire state of mind" - an anthem to the great city.

When he absconds rather than return to Afghanistan, his colleagues reflect on how dangerous life still is for Afghans, and their fears about the impact of the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014.

PRECARIOUS GAINS

The film also touches on the status of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan. One of TOLO's programmes is a call-in show with a psychologist on hand to discuss problems like domestic abuse. Although he appears sympathetic to the experiences of the women seeking his advice, counselling them to leave an abusive husband is unthinkable.

The show itself is progress of a kind – and there are other signs of changing attitudes. When Afghan Star – Afghanistan's answer to The X Factor - was first aired, a female singer whose scarf had slipped onto her shoulders, revealing her hair, received death threats. Now performers sing and dance unveiled. 

"It screams to how far things have changed but the problem is, it is precarious. The gains they have made can be taken away very easily. They have to keep fighting," Orner said.

"The one thing that you hear from the women constantly is, they're not going to take it if the Taliban come back or things get bad, they're going to leave. They're not going to let themselves be put in that situation again now they've got an education and have some freedom."

 

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