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Afghanistan Unplugged

A Q&A with Santa Cruz expatriate Wali Razaqi, producer and star of 'September Tapes,' one of the top-billed films in this year's Pacific Rim Film Festival

By Sarah Phelan

Three years after the 9/11 attacks, the first democratic elections in Afghan history are about to take place, even though most of this mountainous country has descended into anarchy.

Those who have been closely following the events in Afghanistan blame this descent in large part on George W. Bush's decision to go after Saddam--a decision that left Afghanistan, his so-called first front on terror, spiraling out of control as Bush shifted his attention to Iraq. But sadly, despite the fact that this shift required the rerouting of billions of U.S. taxpayers' dollars from the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, most Americans have not had access to coverage of Afghanistan that accurately reflects the on-the- ground experience of this Texas-sized country, which was said to be harboring Osama bin Laden before and after 9/11, and whose citizens have endured 25 years of war. And then there's the other sad fact that Bush's much-touted quest to improve women's rights has not translated into the mass shedding of burkas, which continue to be the uniform of most Afghan women. But now September Tapes, a dramatic thriller which premiered at Sundance 2004 and which opens this week's Pacific Rim Film Festival, casts post-9/11 Afghanistan in a new and very dangerous light, and suggests that maybe the U.S. government did not do everything it could to catch Osama, who has apparently pulled off a disappearing act worthy of Harry Potter's arch nemesis, Valdemort. Shot entirely in Afghanistan over 3 1/2 weeks using digital video and a run-and-gun style that has had critics describing it as Blair Witch meets Black Hawk Down, the resulting film is a raw, unsettling eye-opener. Part play-acting, part real life, September Tapes is based on the premise that one year after 9/11, American journalist Don Larson (George Calil) goes to Afghanistan to hunt down Osama, and hopefully explain the death of his wife at the World Trade Center. Larson enlists Wali Zarif (Afghan-American and former Santa Cruz resident Wali Razaqi) as his Farsi interpreter and guide and hires Sunil (Sunil Sadarangani) as cameraman. The trio set off to Kabul to find leads to Osama and eventually out to the dangerous Afghan countryside. But though Calil was working from a screenplay, Johnston frequently altered the script during shoots to reflect reality, which sometimes meant the bullets whizzing by on screen were actual live ammunition. To find out more, Metro Santa Cruz spoke to Wali Razaqi, who currently is the only Afghani-American actor/producer working in Hollywood, and who together with director Johnson, risked his life to bring US audiences a slice of the real Afghanistan.

Metro Santa Cruz: What exactly is your Santa Cruz connection?

Wali Razaqi: I lived in Santa Cruz for nine years, attending junior high, high school and Cabrillo College. I had a great time growing up here. I was a quarterback at high school. I left when I was 21 years old. While I was in Santa Cruz, I got married, then moved to Los Angeles to finish up school, while playing football a friend gave me the opportunity to produce my own movie, and from there I kept going.

How did you meet Tapes director Christian Johnson?

It was while working on my very first film. My cinematographer was friends with him, and we were working together when 9/11 happened.

I was very much affected by it. Much like many other Americans in California, I didn't know anyone in the twin towers or on the planes, but I felt the same tension, anxiety and uneasiness. As an Afghan by birth, I'd traveled a little more than many of them, and luckily I lived in a diverse culture in a big city, so didn't get attacked. If anything, 9/11 caused people to listen to me and my opinions more.

When were you last in Afghanistan, before making the Tapes?

When I was a little tyke, only 9 months old.

How did it feel to return, 22 years later, as an American citizen?

I was an outsider, just like the rest of the crew. I was there as a producer and actor, but for me it was also a personal journey, a great opportunity to go back to my country. It was a little homecoming. It was also an eye-opener. I'd had 3-4 months to do research, and I thought that once we got into Afghanistan it would be an opportunity to meet up with other journalists and Westerners to tell us what to do. But to tell you the truth, when we arrived in July 2002, we couldn't find any Americans if our life depended on it. The only Americans we found were two Delta Force Rangers, who told us we were high risk and advised us to leave as soon as possible. We were the only Americans walking among people in the bazaars, rather than hiding on the roof of a hotel like the other journalists so the images we recorded were vastly different from what you saw on American TV news, because we were walking naked in the city, we had access to the stores, the restaurants and taxis, so we were able to film what people were eating in the restaurants of Kabul during wartime.

What was your initial reaction?

I couldn't help but think, 'What if my parents' hadn't escaped and I was the one pulling that cart'? I felt humbled the entire time, I realized that I'm so lucky, all my former complaints seemed so minimal. Beyond that, I was very impressed. I knew that the Afghan people had seen war and violence for the past 25 years, and the city looks that way, but the people had an upbeat and positive outlook, even though things looked so grim to me coming from the outside.

They could be devastated, or they could choose to move on and keep going, and they chose the latter course. I never would have seen that if I hadn't gone. And there were moments when I thought I wouldn't return alive. A very few people made it clear that we were not welcome there, at which point we felt like the tourists who come into Santa Cruz must feel when the surfers make it clear that they aren't welcome.

What did you think of what America was doing in Afghanistan?

My biggest question was I couldn't see what we were doing. The idea, for instance, that America has secured the city of Kabul ... I'm telling you that we couldn't find a single soldier. We saw a Japanese guy being beaten up, and no one intervened. So the question that we asked ourselves by the end of our trip was maybe we should question what we're being told on the war on terror. None of the footage we got of Afghans was staged, so it wasn't coincidental that a lot of them believed the same thing about the U.S. role in Afghanistan. And what they thought about it was very disturbing, namely that America knows exactly where Osama Bin laden us and has known so for a long time. When we were there in 2002, people swore that he had escaped and that only a handful of soldiers were trying to capture him. In this month's The Atlantic, Peter Bergen discusses how Osama was allowed to escape. Well, it's not that we discovered that first, but that people were telling us that two years ago in Afghanistan, which also explains why our tapes were confiscated by the Department of Defense, and we still haven't got all of them back.

Three years ago, representatives of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan said there was little difference between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance when it came to women's rights. What were your impressions of the two groups?

We didn't witness any direct incidents, but 85-90 percent of the women were still wearing burkahs. I had an idea going in that it was not just a question of the Taliban, that it was way more than that, and my footage shows all the women behaving the same way. My cousin was there when we met with the Northern Alliance people and he said, 'I'm glad they're helping you, but these guys have been more ruthless than the Taliban'. So, I was, 'Wait, can I trust these guys with their reputation, people swear they're just as ruthless.' But people told me the main difference between the two was that the Northern Alliance weren't harboring terrorists and were willing to team up with Americans.

Do you think it would be easier to shoot a film in Afghanistan today?

There was a lot of instability then. Now there's more of a spotlight and focus, which would have slowed us down. As it was, we had a hard time to get people to talk. Now it would be worse, but Afghanistan is holding democratic elections in October, showing that they have made strides, that everything is moving along just fine. The truth is more voters are likely to turn out. Percentage-wise than in the US, so in that sense its democracy is working better than ours.

Did you hope Osama would get caught while you were there?

We were too focused on what we were doing to think about that. And we didn't want to believe everything people told us, everyone likes to be the expert, but towards the end, there was too much coincidence about the number of stories saying he'd been allowed to escape.

Do you believe the Afghans would ever turn Osama over?

Afghans were eager to catch him. The majority of them have no affiliation to Osama Bin Laden, but a lot would not have handed him over, not because of loyalty, but because they wanted to punish him themselves. Whereas we spent billions to capture Saddam, just to prove he's evil, then have him sitting pretty in jail, having health check ups. Osama not only terrorized America, he also caused the invasion of Afghanistan, so most Afghans very much loathe him.

In what ways does the film differ from the original script?

It helped that the director, Christian Johnston, was a co-writer and that the other writer, Christian Van Gregg, was with us on the trip, so that made it possible to improvise, though we had to do that by typing on a 1940s typewriter, which we lugged around with us, but 80 percent of our original script worked.

What was the most dangerous moment of the trip?

When we had guns drawn in our faces at a checkpoint. We speak lightly of it now, but when you live the life of a movie producer, which is relaxed and comfy, you don't expect to be doing something that would risk your life. So we were almost in denial. We said, it can't be that bad, we had to put our heads down and not get distracted. There's a big difference between the situation in Iraq now and Afghanistan then. We were lucky that the kidnapping and decapitation of Daniel Pearl, who was killed in Pakistan in Feb. 2002, was not getting much attention then, whereas the kidnappers now have succeeded in their aims, with the beheadings they've carried out getting so much media attention. But because of Pearl, before we left for Afghanistan, we contacted the Department of Defense and said, 'We're US Citizens and if we get into trouble, who should we call?' And they said, 'Don't call us'. We knew there were travel restrictions and warnings in place, so in a way it made sense, but it was also scary.

Did your visit make you want to return to, or abandon, Afghanistan?

It was a dual experience. I took time to break away and go explore and see the people I'm related to and the street where I was born. It was also hard to avoid seeing people who'd been affected by land mines. Everywhere they were children and adults with limbs missing. I was used to seeing panhandlers in Santa Cruz, but to see kids my age walking on their hands because they had no legs left, saying, "Where are you from?" and when I said "America," smiling and laughing and wanting to know about it ... Sometimes I had to duck into an alley to cry my eyes out.And sometimes, I'd be forced to produce and coordinate all these strangers and then be in front of a camera acting, and afterwards I'd sit back and say, I can't believe I'm getting this done, hat somehow I've garnered all these skills. It was very satisfying and I'd give myself a pat on the back, while realizing that it was thanks to Afghanistan that I was ever given this opportunity.

What did your family members in America think of the trip?

My wife, Emily Card, is a white American and very supportive, but she didn't want me to go. And I was all, 'I wish you could come, but who knows what will happen?' But now we're very excited, because after the New Year we're going together to meet my family and we feel comfy about the plan. People say, 'Why put your wife in danger?', but it's not that kinda danger. Running around with a camera, that's dangerous. Going to visit and being open to meeting people and learning about their culture, that's not.

What do you think of the U.S. media coverage?

It seems we hear a lot of coverage about the wrong things, and about what's easy to access, like the number of deaths, the injuries. But we don't talk about the root of the problems. As I told people from Fox at a recent press junket, it's not about Republicans and Democrats, about right and left, or about justifying 9/11. It's about letting the American people know the truth of what's going on. Most people here think we're being attacked because of our freedoms, which the terrorists don't want us to have, but there are lots of countries that have the same freedoms for women and religion which aren't being attacked. The truth is that these attacks are directly related to our foreign policy and how we interact with countries in the region, which in turn have directly affected the hate towards America, which is alive and growing, If the news could educate rather than glorify, we might not change the opinions of Americans, maybe they'd still want to go to war, but at least they'd be making more informed decisions.


'September Tapes' plays Friday, Oct. 8, Del Mar Theater, with an after-film discussion with producer/star Wali Razaqi, as well as director Chris Johnston.


Hitting the Highs

Our picks for don't-miss films in the best Pacific Rim Film Festival yet. Can you believe this is still free to the public?

Reviews by Sarah Phelan and Steve Palopoli

Anahaat (2003, India, 95 min.)

It's a rare film that tackles sexual themes without resorting to nudity, and anguished plot lines without stooping to melodrama, all while remaining erotically charged and profoundly moving, but that's precisely what Anahaat (Eternity) achieves. Set in 10th century India, Anahaat tells the heart-wrenching tale of a handsome but impotent king who is forced to approve of an archaic practice in which the queen is forced to go out at night and choose a mate for the night in order to procure an heir. Director Amol Palekar could have dealt with this in overblown Bollywood fashion. Instead, Anahaat offers profound insights into the dichotomy between social and personal needs, and ultimately sheds light on women's eternal quest for equal rights and the unalterable power of time in human affairs. Lavish costumes and sets, fantastic music--not to mention the exquisite beauty of the queen and her overnight shift from girl to woman--enhance the poignant anguish and inherent naughtiness of this film. (Screens Sunday, Oct. 10, at 3:30pm at the Del Mar Theatre, with an after film discussion with assistant director, Nandini Paul.) (Sarah Phelan)

Blind Shaft (2003, China, 92 min.)

In America, we all know what the shaft is--and that someone always gets it. This debut film from Chinese writer-director Yi Lang shows that some things translate perfectly well. Here the title more obviously refers to the darkness in the mines where two con men work their trade. What the con is shouldn't be spoiled; suffice it to say it is far more shocking than what usually passes for a scam in Western films. Then again, around here people will call anything "neo-noir." Sometimes it takes a balls-to-the-wall gritty film like this to remind audiences that slick post-Tarantino crime cool is a far cry from what the blackest B pictures of the original noir cycle (Edward G. Ulmer's Detour is probably the best example) served up. Blind Shaft recalls that same vision of a world in accelerating decay, and corrupt characters whose presence makes it all just a little more rotten. It's interesting that this movie was banned by the Chinese government--it is, after all, at its most basic level a stone-cold indictment of capitalistic greed. Probably they didn't like the scene where the socialist anthem is sung by whores, or maybe the implication that the wheels are coming off the entire industrial system of China. Nitpickers! (Screens Friday, Oct. 8 at 9:45pm and Sunday Oct. 10 at 1pm at the Del Mar Theater.) (Steve Palopoli)

Bolivar Soy Yo (2002, Columbia, 93 min.)

This Columbian film provides a fascinating counterpoint to the somewhat creepy pro-Imperialistic message of Yimou Zhang's otherwise brilliant Hero. In that film, all the layers of illusion in the story were finally stripped away to reveal the "truth" of nationalism--"Our Land." But in Jorge Ali Triana's slyly serio-comic Bolivar Soy Yo (Bolivar I Am), "Our Land" is the illusion with which the film opens. In the first scene, Simon Bolivar, the 19th century Columbian hero who led the war for independence against Spain and dreamed of seeing many Central and South American nations united as "the Great Columbia," stands tall in front of a firing squad. "I don't aspire to anything else but the consolidation of Columbia," he tells his accusers. "Everyone must work towards the invaluable well being of the Union, obey the present government to free themselves of anarchy." Only it's not really Bolivar, as it turns out. It's an actor, Santiago Miranda, portraying Bolivar on an historical TV soap opera called The Lovers of the Liberator. And he's had enough: "Cut! Cut!Cut!" he yells to the crew after delivering the patriotic death speech. "Bolivar didn't die this way! I don't kill Bolivar this way!" Very soon, however, he will say "I refuse to die this way," as he begins to imagine that he is Bolivar. From there, the layers of illusion pile up like cars in tule fog. Santiago is imagining himself to be a man who imagined himself to be a Don Quixote or even Jesus Christ. The director (named Castro, tee hee) calls him nuts and "a raving lunatic" as others suggest that Santiago only "imagines" himself to be actor--that is, he's really a talentless hack who should go back to his "little theater group." Another unspoken level of illusion, of course, is that the actor character Santiago is being portrayed by real-life actor Robinson Diaz, and as with many films from this part of the world, much of the dialogue hints at masks, deceit and history versus fiction. Santiago flees the set, and as his delusions seem to be taking over, imagines that he must literally realize Bolivar's dream. The shows producers set out to hunt him down, with a bizarre set of therapies in mind for their cracked actor--anything to get him to finish the popular show. When Santiago attends a conference of Latin American leaders, the illusions of the "Our Land" ethos begin to be stripped away. As Bolivar, Santiago tells them his dream has been used to justify coups, fraud, brutality and war, and then he takes things into his own hands with a kidnapping that leaves all of the movie's questions rather breathlessly up in the air until the end: is Santiago truly crazy? How will the TV show (and in another subtle meta-reference, the film itself) end? The implied questions are even more important: How should the TV show end, and is Bolivar--and Santiago's--the "real" political solution for Columbia? (Screens Saturday, Oct. 9 at 3:30pm at the Del Mar, and Sunday, Oct. 10 at the Fox Theatre in Watsonville.) (Steve Palopoli)

Chunhyang (2000, Korea, 118 min.)

Just when you thought you'd seen every take on the Romeo and Juliet theme, along comes this Korean tale of star-crossed lovers. Set in 13th century Korea, Chunhyang uses a present-day narrator accompanied by a drummer to sing the dilemma of a beautiful young commoner, Chunhyang (Yi Hyo Jeong) and a young noblewoman Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), who falls in love after he spots her on a swing in the countryside.

The pair professes their love for one another and elopes, but soon thereafter Mongryong is forced to accompany his father to Seoul for three years. During this time, a tyrant named Byun (Lee Jung Hun) comes to power in Chunhyang's province and demands that the young beauty marry him. When she refuses, Byun sets the date, not for their wedding, but for her execution, just as Mongryong returns to reclaim his true love. Set in a romantic, sun-dappled realm where women are faithful, noblemen are upright and bad guys are instantly recognizable on account of bushy beards and hard stares, this film stylistically resembles a European fairy tale, only with way more nudity.

Directed by renowned Korean filmmaker Im Kwon Taek, whose family fortune was decimated by the Korean War, the film is in part a lament for the disappearance of traditional culture as the South Korea hurtles towards modernization. Featuring Pansori singing, which some have described as kabuki meets Shirley Bassey, Chunhyang is a sensuous and passionate visual delight. (Screens Sunday, Oct. 10 at 7pm and Monday, Oct. 11 at 3:30pm at the Del Mar Theatre.) (Sarah Phelan)

The Cup, (1999, Bhutan, 93 min.)

People, including myself, tend to think of Buddhist monks as being so Zen. The Cup dispels such notions in short order, showing these monks to be infinitely down-to-earth and filled with a childlike humanity--a portrait that makes them endearing and sympathetic in a real, rather than idealized, way. Inspired by true events, this unconventional and eye-opening look at life inside a monastery focuses on the trials and tribulations of two young Tibetan boys, Palden and Nylma who escape Tibet and arrive at a monastery full of monks- in exile in the Himalayan foothills. Their ordination quickly undertaken, the boys find themselves strangely suspended between tradition and modern technology, as their youthful colleagues play pranks during somber traditional prayer sessions and scribble soccer slogans on every spare surface, much to the consternation of Geko, the monastery disciplinarian. Drawn into extra-curricular activities by Orygen, a 14-year old soccer obsessed monk, and his partner in crime, Lodo, the new boys on the cell block soon find themselves threatened with expulsion, when they are caught sneaking out at night to watch a World Cup match. Luckily, the wise and compassionate Abbot and his faithful but frazzled Geko come to terms with the fact that the young monks are obsessed with a game that involves, as Geko puts it, "two nations fighting for a ball." The monks set Orygen on a desperate but hilarious quest get a TV and satellite dish installed in the monastery in time for the World Cup final. This quest revolves in part around trading in Nylma's watch, which is his only connection with his mother and Tibet, and which symbolizes the waiting game the Abbot plays as he not so patiently awaits the day he too can return home. A metaphor for the universality of the experience of childhood and the generation gap, The Cup manages to humorously bridge this chasm through--of all things--soccer. As the young newcomers grapple with the culture shock of trading baseball caps and sneakers for shaved heads and saffron and crimson robes, their wise elders grapple with the recognition that exposure to the modern world is an inevitable and ultimately integral part of a young monk's training. And in their compassionate handling of Orygen, the audience sees a compelling alternative to America's obsession with Ritalin. (Screens Friday, Oct. 8 at noon and Saturday, Oct. 9, at 1pm at the Del Mar.) (Sarah Phelan)

Rock With Wings (2002, U.S., 113 min.) Benefit screening

It's fair to wonder why director Rick Derby would begin the best and most inspiring sports documentary since Hoop Dreams with the story of a mountain. Even the name of his film comes from the peak that sits next to a small town in New Mexico, and, indeed, it's on this rock that Derby built his 12-years-in-the-making film about the Chieftains, a girls' basketball team at Shiprock High School who changed their own lives and the lives of an entire community with their incredible winning streak in 1989. The Navajos believe their forefathers rode to that spot on a giant bird, which crash-landed into the Earth, leaving only its wing--which is indeed what the mountain looks like--protruding from the ground as evidence. We're told they think of it as a "big bird," which is not so much a metaphor for the film as it is a character the mountain plays in it. In the beginning, as we see it looming over the town of Shiprock in Derby's long landscape shots, it looks like a vulture, threatening to pick at the bones of this run-down community when it finally gives up the ghost. We hear about the 50 percent unemployment there, that half the families don't even have running water. We hear about schoolkids ashamed to be Indians and of a community divided. The Big Bird is circling. But then we meet the girls on this team, see their passion for the game of basketball and for each other, and witness the tough-love leadership of their incredible coach, who seems to be supporting them through life as much as through their basketball season (what, the Warriors couldn't get this guy?)

"I have never seen the people of Shiprock relate so humanly to one another," one woman attests. "I have never seen smiles, I have never seen handshakes between people. Their winning just did something to this whole community. It has really unified Shiprock." As the girls' season unfolds, the winged mountain begins to seem more like a phoenix, one run-for-the-state-championship's worth of hope rising from the ashes of hopelessness. Good sports films always give us a will-they-win-or-won't-they hook, and that provides the skeleton of the story. But great sports films give us something more, and Rock With Wings has something more in spades. To hear the girls talk so openly about their lives, dreams and pain is stunning; to see "teamwork" become a cultural issue is, as far as I know, unique in the canon of American documentary. This is a film everyone can relate to--it's recommended not just if you love sports but especially if you never understood how anyone could. Rock With Wings will make you understand. (This is the only film in the festival with a charge for admission; it is a benefit for the ongoing efforts of the Pac Rim fest. Screens Tuesday, Oct. 12 at the Rio Theatre; director Rick Derby and one tickets are $10 and may be purchased at Logo's and Bookshop Santa Cruz.) (Steve Palopoli)

Visas and Virtues (1997, Japanese American, 26 min.)
with Day of Independence (2003, Japanese American, 27 min.)

Two half-hour shorts make up this program of Japanese-American films.

Inspired by a true story, Visas and Virtues is about a Japanese diplomat and his wife stationed in Lithuania in 1940 at the onset of World War II. Captured in period black and white by renowned cinematographer Hiro Narita, this award-winning film portrays the dilemma that Consul General Chiune "Sempo" Sugihara faced when he defied his government's orders and issued life-saving transit visas, thereby saving the second largest number of Jews from the Holocaust. Haunted by the sight of hundreds of Jewish refugees outside his consulate in Kaunas, Sugihara cabled Tokyo three times to ask for permission to issue visas--and was rejected three times. After agonizing for two days and consulting with his wife, Yukiko, Sugihara decides to risk life and career, working 16 hours a day for three weeks to issue over 2,000 visas which ended up saving 6,000 lives. Captured by the Soviets in 1945, Sughihara and his wife and three children spent 16 months in Russian prison camps. Upon his release and return to Japan, he was asked to resign "for the incident in Lithuania." Thereafter, he took jobs teaching Russian for radio and selling lightbulbs door-to-door. When he passed away in 1986, he was largely unknown and unrecognized in his native land, but a tree was planted in his honor on the Mountain of Remembrance in Jerusalem in his honor at the behest of Johoshua Nishrir, who received one of his visa and survived to become an Israeli diplomat, In 1991, Japan apologized to Sugiharaís family and today a park bears his name in his home town of Yaotsu, Japan.Visas and Virtues creators Chris Tashima and Tim Tomaya were also the minds behind Day of Independence, a dramatic short set in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War 11, one of many where 120,000 innocent people were sent without due process, in one of the darkest chapters in American history. (Screen Sunday, Oct. 10, at the Fox Theatre in Watsonville, with an after-film discussion with director-star Chris Tashima, and Monday, Oct. 11, at 1pm at the Del Mar.) (Sarah Phelan)

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From the September 29-October 6, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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