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Shadow of Afghanistan

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By Henry Turner
Once upon a time, journalists were part secret agent and part spiritual journeyer, taking cameras and microphones to the most war-ravaged areas of the world to bring back stories — sometimes at the cost of their own lives.
Such is the case with Jim Burroughs, Suzanne Bauman and, most tragically, Lee Shapiro, whose quest through the mountains and plains of Afghanistan have resulted in the new documentary Shadow of Afghanistan.
Made over a period of 20 years, the film presents a nation’s trauma through the lives of several individuals. Chief among these is Shapiro, a journalist and filmmaker who in 1986 decided to bring the story of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the world. Accompanied by soundman Jim Lindelof and translator and guide Wakil Akbarzai, Shapiro ventured three times into Afghanistan and shot some of the most startling yet intimate footage ever seen of a country at war.
His images of Afghan freedom fighters trekking across snow-swept mountains are truly awesome, while scenes of ragged refugee camps make plain the awful cost of the Soviet invasion.
Yet he also manages to convey the hardiness of a people who will fight to the last man to regain their freedom. Scenes of Afghan men playing a rugged equestrian contest on an arid plain demonstrate the ultra-machismo element of their warrior heritage. In another scene, parents teach their children to play a game in which they hop about holding one foot by a hand — a lesson that will enable them to still become soldiers even if they lose limbs to Soviet landmines often disguised as toys.
In the course of making the film, Shapiro’s beard grows out and his eyes take on a piercing look. Narrated extracts from his journal convey his desire to stay focused on his mission, and his words have the impact of a man on a spiritual quest.
Key scenes show him venturing through barren and hostile towns, where, despite his armed escort, the eyes of the residents glower at him.
Finally, when he and Lindelof decide to venture upcountry to interview a Mujahidin commander, they are tragically killed, and their bodies are never found.
From this point on, production was taken over by the documentary team of Burroughs, Bauman and Dan Devaney, who acquired Shapiro’s footage, and ventured many times into Afghanistan to complete the story.
“One of the key things about the film is how it transformed over 20 years,” Burroughs says. “In ’86 Lee Shapiro had gone in to film the impact of the Soviet invasion, while Suzanne and myself were making a documentary about refugees around the world.” But that plan changed when Burroughs and his team became acquainted with the Shapiro footage and the Afghan situation.
As edited by Mary Ann Skweres and Bauman, the film uses mainly original location footage intercut with archival footage to present a panorama of Afghan history. Starting as a post World War II democratic monarchy with amazing human rights for its people, the doc tracks the rise of a Communist government, the invasion by Brezhnev-era Soviets, the rise of the nationalist Mujahidin and the post Cold War rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda infiltration.
In the course of more than a dozen trips to Afghanistan, Burroughs and his crew made it a point to remain as inconspicuous as possible, often hiding under blankets in the backs of trucks during their travels, with Afghan soldiers sitting on top of them.
The team lived with the people, whom they recall as having marvelous hospitality despite their struggle. “We ate what they ate, usually a big bowl of greasy meat and non-leavened bread. All hands dipped into the big bowl,” says Burroughs.
The filmmakers traveled with their armed Mujahidin escort, led by Akbarzai, and stayed with the people in villages and camps. “Our shoots would be no longer than a week or ten days at a time,” Burroughs says. “That’s how we kept alive. We moved quickly and kept a low profile.”
Despite their caution and due diligence, there were many hairbreadth escapes. At one point, while searching for the bodies of four murdered network journalists, Burroughs and his crew were almost killed by a truckload of gunmen.
Later the same day, they found themselves in a roadside house at night, surrounded by the gleaming eyes of hostile Afghan Arabs. “Our guides were telling us we were in terrible danger,” Burroughs says, and recalls the experience as the most harrowing of all his Afghan adventures.
On still another occasion, the crew was staying in a mountain village, and unbeknownst to them, Osama bin Laden himself was only a few miles away, making his infamous announcement of Jihad against all Americans.
Technically, the film documents not just Afghan history, but the history of changes in filmmaking itself. “We started with a Super 16 Aaton,” Bauman says. “We also used an Éclair and an Arri S that actually broke down on us. When we went to video we started with a Beta SP 130, that’s a Sony DV cam, but for the last shoots we used a Sony VX1000 consumer model.”
As Skweres points out, editing the more than 100,000 feet of footage was an involved and often daunting process. “A lot of the original magnetic sound was old and actually coming apart,” she says. A strange procedure was necessary to re-adhere the iron oxide back onto the tape. “I actually had to bake it. I had a heating plate for drying vegetables at low temperature, and I used that to fix the mag.”
With production funds running low, Skweres and Bauman used their ingenuity to assemble the initial edits. “For early cuts, a lot of footage was Telecined right off a Steenbeck,” Skweres says.
The film is full of moving moments, especially those centered around the Afghan guide Akbarzai, who upon returning to his home finds that he cannot enter because of the threat of landmines on his property. Wakil is often the driving force of the film, who maintains his extraordinary dignity despite almost insurmountable odds.
The film has already shown at Tribeca and several other festivals as a work in progress. Burroughs and his fellow producers are presenting screenings in order to qualify for Academy nomination and The Independent Spirit Awards.
One thing they need is a financial angel. Burroughs points out that the story of Afghanistan is a story of a problem ignored, a country left behind by the United States. Perhaps by funding the release of Shadow of Afghanistan and getting it into theaters, that tragic problem can begin to be mended.

Written by Henry Turner

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