The end of the war in Afghanistan has produced shocking images of evacuation.
A new documentary chronicles a boy’s life from 9/11 to today in “My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan,” which opens in L.A. on Friday before expanding wider.
“Apart from the ‘7 Up’ series, which followed a few children in Britain growing up and checking back every seven years, and ‘Boyhood,’ which of course was a real actor but it was a drama, I’ve never seen anything like this,” co-director Phil Grabsky told WTOP.
Shortly after 9/11, Grabsky traveled from Britain to Afghanistan in July of 2002.
“I went in search of a story,” Grabsky said. “The fall of the Taliban following 9/11 was precipitated by the U.S.-NATO invasion of Afghanistan, but what struck me as a documentary filmmaker was that we weren’t talking much about the Afghan people. There’s no way every Afghan man was a bearded, malevolent, potential terrorist.”
He arrived to find Kabul wrecked with planes and tanks upside-down around minefields.
“I went down to the countryside to the one city that people have heard of, Bamiyan,” Grabsky said. “Alongside these destroyed Buddhas, which were carved as the tallest cliff statues in the world until the Taliban destroyed them needlessly, there were 200 caves of internally displaced refugees. That’s where I found the cheekiest, funniest, cutest little boy.”
His name was Mir, which ironically means “peace” in Russian.
“I thought, ‘If I follow his story for a year on and off … it will make us think about what is the future of Afghanistan,” Grabsky said. “When the Taliban fell and the Americans and 40 other nations came in, there was a real sense of joy and optimism. I thought I could capture that by following this boy’s life and seeing what changed for him and his family.”
While Grabsky has flown back and forth from his home in Britain, his co-director Shoaib Sharifi was embedded in Afghanistan to capture more footage on the ground in his native Afghanistan. Sharifi was also the BBC’s former World Service News Bureau chief in Kabul.
“I knew that, one, he would have more time in Kabul because he lives in Kabul, and two, he would give me even more access with this family,” Grabsky said. “He is the most remarkable man. There’s no film without him. He built up a fabulous bond with this family. … I might have started that process, but Shoaib carried it on.”
Like many in Afghanistan, Mir’s family has been through a horrific quarter century.
“The Russian invasion, the Mujahideen, the civil war, then the Taliban, it’s a very bleak period the Afghan nation has been through,” Grabsky said. “Can you imagine 2 million people killed? That is just utterly extraordinary. … There are 2,600 NATO soldiers who lost their lives and an estimated 160,000 Afghans have lost their lives in the last 20 years.”
Beyond the personal family footage, the film poses broader geopolitical questions.
“As an international community, what should we do when there are these sometimes dreadful governments like the Taliban, like Libya, like Iraq?” Grabsky said. “If those governments do topple, then what do you do and where do you put your resources? The one political thing that I’ll say is that a ratio of 30:1 of military to aid is a mistake.”
He worries that the military was the wrong vessel for so-called “nation building.”
“You could never beat the Taliban militarily,” Grabsky said. “If you use a drone and you shoot and kill some guy in a car but you also kill his driver, three others and two civilians, you’ve just created another 25 Taliban. They were happy to live in caves year after year, taking potshots at poor American soldiers … who didn’t deserve to be injured, let alone killed.”
He believes the American military took its eye off the ball by invading Iraq in 2003.
“As soon as Iraq happened, I knew that was terrible for Afghanistan because all of the attention went to another country,” Grabsky said. “When the military was suddenly made responsible for development and political advance, giving brigade commanders cash to hand out … there were too many people in military uniform and not enough in civilian clothes.”
Today, Mir’s family is trying to flee Taliban rule, but Grabsky hopes that the past 20 years of Western influence will inspire future generations.
“We can’t whitewash it and say it was a complete waste of time,” Grabsky said. “You have teenagers who were born after the fall of the Taliban. … Everyone has a mobile phone, everyone’s connected to the World Wide Web. … They’re looking at YouTube and Facebook. … They’re used to multiple feeds of news, multiple channels. It’s very hard to put those genies back in the bottle.”