I re-watched Taxi to the Darkside a few nights ago, preparing myself for a chat with Eva Orner, one of the producers of that Academy Award-winning film. If you missed it, the film takes account of the US military's brutal tactics during the peak of the war on terror, framed around an Afghan taxi driver who is suddenly hauled off to the United States' Parwan Detention Facility and beaten to death.
I met Orner at South by Southwest, where she was hustling her latest film, The Network. The Network features a brighter side of Afghanistan's brighter side: the story of its television revolution. In Orner's opinion, it's a narrative that runs contrary to our common conceptions of a country that has spent decades in a state of war and instability.
She followed Saad Mohseni, a media guru and founder of Afghan media firm Moby Group, who is credited for jump starting the nation's media transformation. Sometimes referred to as the Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan, Mohseni, an Afghan expat and entrepreneur, explains how he and his siblings returned to Kabul from Australia in 2001, amidst the war shifting into gear. First, they launched a radio station, and by 2004 they'd moved to television with Tolo TV, quickly turning Moby Group into the largest media conglomerate in the nation.
Motherboard: What does the world need to know about Afghan television network, which I guess is pretty young?
Orner: Well, it's 12 years old. It's a story about a reconstruction of the country. It's an Afghanistan film that's not about the war, and it's not about military, which most of them are. I thought it'd be really interesting to make a film as we approach the withdrawal next year of most foreign troops and foreign aid.
I thought it'd be almost a little subversive to do a positive story about something amazing and successful in Afghanistan because a lot of things in Afghanistan haven't been handled very well. There's been a lot of corruption, there's been a lot of instability. There is still a lot of danger there, and the big success story in Afghanistan has been the media.
I felt like Americans didn't know about it, I felt like it was a somewhat Western concept being injected there successfully and it's pretty much provided the most social change in the country at a relatively low cost. I think it's a very interesting thing to consider when we continuously invade countries and don't do it very well, and then leave. It's something that's comparably inexpensive and can have a huge impact on the society, which is what we showcase in the film.
I heard about 10 percent of Afghanistan has internet access, I saw ...
No, I don't think that's accurate, I actually don't have the figures, I don't address them in the movie. I think the mobile phone capabilities are super high. A lot of people have Internet, they don't have it at home so much; they have it at work. Facebook is huge there. Twitter is not because a lot of them have phones, but they're not connected to the Internet, because it's really expensive to have mobile internet, but that will change very quickly.
From a country that 12 years ago was about 300 years back in time and had no interest in anything but water, was wanton to get to where it is now, which you'll see in the film is the change. It's been extraordinary. Just the change in life expectancy has gone up from about 46 to 64 in the last 10 years. The illiteracy rate, which is between 60 and 70 percent is falling rapidly. The average age of the population is 24. That's a really young country. They want to be connected, they want to be tech-savvy and they want to know what's going on in the rest of the world. They never want to go back to where they were 12 years ago.
Does the prominence of this television network have anything to do with American military presence?
There's a big portion of the film which explains how things were founded in Afghanistan after the invasion. There was obviously a lot of US money and foreign embassy money and foreign aid money, that's what help set up these businesses. TOLO, the TV station, is one of the few examples of a self-sustaining business that has had very little of that kind of money and does a lot of advertising and has actually turned into a business that employs about 800-900 people. They still have sponsored shows by the US Embassy. There is some propaganda, good and bad, which we address in the film.
It feels like there is a need for us to bring amazing communication with us wherever we go. Does that activity lend to this network whatsoever?
They had to build their own TV towers, Saad talks about it in the film. When they arrived there were no qualified engineers, they had to find people and show them how to build television towers. There was nothing. Now there's a whole mountain–which you see in the film–covered by TV antennas. There are 75 television stations in Afghanistan, and of all the pioneers of Afghan media, these are the ones that setup the first company. It's the biggest and has the largest market share, which is why I chose them.
So it isn't state-run, it's totally independent? What is their broadcast like? What is their best show?
That's what the film is about, there are many many shows that they do. They have a really strong 24-hour news channel. It's run by young kids that cover news locally and around the world. And they're critical about the government, they do corruption stories, and it makes them very unpopular with the government which is extraordinary in a country like Afghanistan. It's called TOLO News.
They do shows like Sesame Street, which they show in many countries. But in a country like Afghanistan, because of the high illiteracy rate, a lot of the parents watch it with their kids and learn to read and spell and count. They have drama shows, police shows, action shows, they have an American Idol type of show called Afghan Star. They have a women's call-in show where women call and talk to a psychiatrist and ask questions like, “My husband beats me everyday. What should I do?” He can't give them a lot of advice because he's operating in a fundamentalist Muslim country where it's illegal to leave your husband, even if he beats you. But he tries, he listens to them and helps them.
There's a whole section in the film about women and how far women have come. A lot of women there rent apartments, they're writers, producers, editors, and 12 years ago they weren't allowed to leave the house without a relative. They couldn't get education. These women are now defying their families and not getting married. They're working, and they get a lot of criticism for it, and they're very very brave.
"A lot of women there rent apartments, they're writers, producers, editors, and 12 years ago they weren't allowed to leave the house without a relative."
It's really a story about Saad Mohseni and his family who were a group of Afghanis, who were refugees in Australia after the Russians invaded, who grew up in the west, who had a great life in the west.
Saad Mohseni (via The Australian)
They were successful and educated. They came back, after America invaded and the Taliban was ousted in 2001, looking to help and do something for their absolute war-trodden country. They had an awful lot of business moxie, and they came in and changed the country. To me, the film is about the power of a few individuals to completely turn around a country and I love that message. I find that to be a very strong and powerful message: What a few smart people can do.
So, did you spend a good amount of time there?
I spent three months there, with someone who works at VICE actually, Abazar Khayami. It was just him and I, just the two of us, because it's too dangerous to have more people. Every time we were on the street with our cameras, someone would come up to us with a gun and point it at us and swear at us and try and shut us down. The less people, the better, there's more safety that way. We worked together on the film for two months and were nearly blown up a couple of times. We both got extraordinarily sick, we both lost an awful lot of weight, and we'll be bonded for life. It was an amazing experience.
Last night was the first time I saw it on a really big screen and it was just beautiful, he did a great job. And his parents are Iranian, so he speaks Farsi, which is very similar to Dari, so he was our translator. He can speak with the locals, so I couldn't have done it without him.
Nearly blown up? What was your most dangerous transaction while you were there?
We were there during Ashura which is a Shia holiday where Shias go into the street and self-flagellate with large knives. They beat themselves and they're covered in blood. We were filming it because I thought it could be kind of interesting. It's like a big parade and celebration, people were super nice. There were thousands of people in the street. We'd been there for two hours filming and as we drove off we heard the big explosion. It went off exactly where we were and over 80 people were killed. So that was a pretty rough day. Just horrible for the country and all the victims and the families.
One day we took the day off and went hiking in Panjshir Valley, just a few hours outside of Kabul, and I nearly stepped on a land mine (laughs). My driver came running up to me and pushed me and I went flying. And he never would touch me because he's a religious man–men don't touch women–and I sort of went flying and landed on my back and was kind of like, “Mustapha, what the fuck?” And he just kind of looked at me sheepishly, apologizing for touching me which I couldn't care less about. I was kind of like, “What are you doing?” And he just pointed and I was about two steps off from stepping on a land mine. And I laughed and said, “I thought we were going hiking where there were no land mines,” and through Abazar translating he said, “Not many land mines” (laughs). That was kind of scary.
"I was kind of like, 'What are you doing?' And he just pointed and I was about two steps off from stepping on a land mine."
I think that every time you go out, you know you're at risk. Bombs don't go off all the time, but they go off fairly regularly–one went off this week to coincide with Chuck Hegel's visit–you just don't want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's definitely a rough place to be and I'm not some-tough-sort-of foreign correspondent.
Are you jonesin' to get back there?
I just started on my next film which is partially set in Beirut, I just got back from Lebanon. It's about gay Iraqi refugees. To be gay in Iraq is pretty bad, they get killed. So they're trying to get out and be liberated. Some of them worked for the American military as translators during the war. A lot of them are in Lebanon trying to get to America illegally. There are a bunch of them in Seattle. My editor calls it 'Gay Argo.' (laughs)
Is that your working title?
No, it's called Out of Iraq. My editor calls it that because he loved 'Argo.' There is something about that part of the world. It's like the more you know the less you know. I mean, the more you read and the more time you spend there, you realize you have no idea what is going on. It's smoke and daggers, and tricky, and complicated, and it changes all the time. Every country there affects the other countries and it's very unstable at the minute. I just find it endlessly fascinating. There are so many stories to be told.
Watch the trailer for The Network below: