A conversation with Afghan-Canadian director Ariel Nasr

Posted by Aisha Jamal & filed under People to Watch, Uncategorized.

Scene from "Boxing Girls of Kabul"
Scene from "Boxing Girls of Kabul"

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It’s a sad fact that despite the Canadian military’s 13-year mission in Afghanistan – the longest to date for Canada – Canadians know fairly little about the country and its reality.

What we see in the news media mainly focuses on images of women in burqas and men in turbans, either looking like they are on their last leg or they’re about to blast yours off. This limited view is often brought to you by non-Afghan journalists and filmmakers so the question arises, where the heck are all the Afghan-Canadians and why don’t we hear their stories and take on the country? Although few in numbers, they do exist.

Based in Montreal, but born in Halifax and raised in Toronto, Ariel Nasr is perhaps the best known of the lot. His recent film “Boxing Girls of Kabul” (2012) about the Afghan women’s national Olympic team won the Canadian version of an Oscar, a Canadian Screen Award, for Best Documentary. Nasr also produced a short film about two boys dreaming of becoming champion horsemen, “Buzkashi Boys” (2012). The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Film, opening new doors for Nasr to pursue fiction filmmaking.

Nasr also directed for the National Film Board the film “Good Morning Kandahar” (2008), which looks at the Canadian mission in Afghanistan with a critical lens, focusing mainly on Afghan-Canadians and their experiences. The film include such bizarre and memorable scenes as the re-enactment of an Afghan battlefield in rural Alberta, with Afghan-Canadians playing the parts of civilians and Taliban. 

I connected with Nasr over email about his path to filmmaking, his approach to the craft,  and shooting films in a country under occupation. Here’s some of our conversation:

Aisha Jamal: I read that you initially wanted to be a farmer. What led you to a career in filmmaking instead?

Ariel Nasr: Pure accident. I suffered a repetitive strain injury using a chainsaw that turned into chronic tendonitis. Since I couldn’t continue with farm work until it healed, I decided to spend a year at university and once I started reading, I had no desire to stop. Toward the end of my bachelor’s degree I developed an interest in film that led to experiments in documentary that led me to the National Film Board. I was lucky enough to find a producer there who supported my work.

AJ: You have directed two documentaries to date. What draws you to this genre versus fiction or experimental?

AN: I didn’t go to film school, or live in a place with a big industry, so my practice came out of what was available at the time and being in the moment, following my curiosity about the world. Documentary is a wonderful means for doing that.

As you know, one of the interesting things about documentary is that you can tell stories about and for your local community without having to worry about big financial investment. I guess that’s how I got started—with community driven projects that were screened only in Nova Scotia.

AJ:   Both “Boxing Girls” and “Good Morning” are about Afghanistan. How do you decide what topic to approach or deal with?

AN: When I made those films, I was concerned about the public discourse around Afghanistan, which was lacking in depth and complexity. I wanted to help introduce some Afghan perspectives to the conversation.

AJ: I have found that members of the Afghan-Canadian community don’t always come out to films that deal with Afghanistan. What kinds of community response have you gotten to “Good Morning, Kandahar,” a film that is critical of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan and highlights the work of Afghan-Canadians who work with the military on projects like the military funded Rana Radio?

AN: My experience with the Afghan-Canadian community has been very positive. In particular, many younger members of the community have thanked me and expressed a hunger for more dialogue about Afghanistan. It’s an extremely diverse community, so it can be hard to get people on the same page about anything. In a certain way, that fits with my work. I try to introduce more complexity to an issue, rather than simplifying, allowing different viewers to find different meaning in the work.

AJ: The two films were shot in Afghanistan. What are some of the difficulties working in a country that is/was under military occupation?

AN: There’s always a risk when you work in a place like Afghanistan, where things can change very quickly. If you are too far off the beaten path, you can expose yourself to kidnapping or theft.  If you are too close to security forces, the risk of being exposed to conflict is much higher.  Also, military and police tend to be wary of cameras and microphones, so one is often regarded with suspicion by men with guns.

AJ: How has the Oscar nomination changed your career?

AN: The nomination has been a blessing, and has created new opportunities for work.  For example, I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to develop a feature with Go Films of Montreal for which I am currently writing the script.

Aisha Jamal has a PhD in German Cinema from the University of Toronto. Currently she is teaching at Trent University and Sheridan College. Outside of talking, thinking and writing about film, she is also interested in food and books.

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