Categories
Asia Cinema Documentary SBS

Images of Afghanistan

Helmand Province, photo by Ed Ledford

A welter of emotions and images led me to write this blog in the days before Christmas. Particularly the images of people crossing the English channel and the Mediterranean – and often dying in the attempt – desperately trying to reach a place of safety from Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria.

Many people, myself included, know little about Afghanistan and its people. I had no real idea of what the country looked like before writing this piece.

The label ‘migrant’ applied to Afghans and others seeking refuge is particularly wrong. Western governments sit on their hands but it is their arms sales to those countries and military involvement which in part leads to the flight of refugees, and our unwillingness or inability to organise safe routes for them (particularly from Afghanistan) leads them to risk their lives travelling thousands of miles to reach our shores.


As Kabul fell in mid-August, many nations evacuated their citizens and some of those Afghans who had worked for them. The British government evacuated many and also set up the ‘Afghan settlement scheme’ as Kabul fell – but it still isn’t operational. Those who worked for the British army were advised to ‘leave Afghanistan by land’ rather than via Kabul airport; and once they’d left Afghanistan, the only way to safety in the UK was via illegal routes. Now, the Taliban say they are going to start issuing passports again – but those who have worked for Western forces will surely not apply as it will identify them.

But one way to look inside Afghanistan and the experience of Afghani people has been through several of the insightful documentaries that have been released in the past couple of years.


On December 14th, Phil Grabsky’s documentary ‘My Childhood, My Country‘ was shown on the channel I work for, SBS Australia. It follows the life of a boy called Mir that Phil met as an eight year old in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, to the 29 year old working as a cameraman for Western news agencies in Kabul. Streaming now on SBS On Demand or ITV in the UK, in cinemas in Germany, and you can watch the trailer here. Now that the west has been expelled from Afghanistan, and the Taliban are anti all western media, what’s the future for Mir? The Eurovision team of the EBU recently produced this two-part podcast on the future of free media in Afghanistan.

The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in August, and the big changes to that society that resulted, was big news for a short while, but our attention quickly moved elsewhere.  It’s so good to see public service media and the world of documentaries keeping Afghanistan in the public eye. I’m not saying it’s a coordinated effort, but the release and support of several information/documentaries in a short period of time makes a lot more impact.

Certainly the highest profile film is the Danish production Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen and producer Monica Hellstrom, an animated retelling of the journey of an Afghan refugee, which is now on three longlists for the Oscars, and a near certainty to be nominated at least in the best doc category. It’s also won two European Film Awards, amongst many other prizes this year.

The all-animated style may not be to everyone’s taste, but it has been widely seen and written about, and certainly opens out his experience to a wider public. Knowing the makers, I know that they will be looking at all avenues to promote and support Afghan creatives through the success of the film and the platform this gives them to talk about the country and its struggles. The main character doesn’t reveal his identity – he’s called Amir in the film. I wonder if he’ll bring himself into the spotlight – people will be very curious to know the real person behind the animated portrayal.

At Malmo’s Nordisk Panorama festival in September, a Swedish documentary called Aboli’s Journey won the best Nordic doc prize, and that had much less of a happy end than Flee – showing how Nordic countries are returning refugees to war-torn countries where their lives are very much in danger. It was previously shown at the Tempo doc festival, and on Swedish broadcaster SVT.

Yasaman Sharifmanesh

The Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Yasaman Sharifmanesh is Swedish-based, and notes in this in-depth interview for Business Doc Europe that Iran has more than 3 million Afghan refugees – putting many western countries’ extreme reluctance to take refugees into stark perspective.

The last winner of the Whickers Award was two Afghan filmmakers, Ilyas Yourish & Shahrokh Bikaran with their film Kamay – here on the bottom of this screengrab from the awards ceremony.

I remember talking to Jane Ray from the Whickers during the capture of Kabul by the Taliban. She was working hard to get both of them out – which she did, and they all met in Amsterdam at IDFA where the project was being pitched at the Forum. A really heartening end to the story of the filmmakers flight from Kabul; though the process the film is documenting is more troubling.

“After a young girl from the mountains of central Afghanistan mysteriously commits suicide inside Kabul University, her family’s calm rural life enters into a painful and exhausting process. Her parents are now looking for justice in one of the most corrupt judicial systems in the world; while Freshta, their younger daughter, attempts to gain admission to the same university to complete what her sister had started.”

You can still apply for this amazing funding scheme for documentary makers on their first feature doc, by the way – closing date is January 31st.

This year Looks Film released two projects on Afghanistan, a series called ‘Wounded Land‘ shown on Arte and other European broadcasters, and a feature doc ‘I Want My Country Back‘ about the particular history of women in Afghanistan.

I can also recommend two other documentaries about Afghanistan, Kabul, City in the Wind by Netherlands based filmmaker Aboozar Amini and producer Xia Zhao. And The Land of the Enlightened, a hybrid film by Pieter-Jan de Pue whom I met when he showed the film at HotDocs in Toronto three years ago.

I haven’t included on this list any of the many films which focus on the conflict, often by embedding themselves with army units – although there are some fine films amongst them, I’m highlighting in this blog those that look beyond the conflict at the Afghan experience.


But most recently and topically, I heard about (but haven’t seen) this film by James Glancy, distributed by Cinephil, and simply titled Afghanistan, which chronicles a British solder’s return to Afghanistan just as U.S. troops pulled out of the country amid a Taliban takeover.

We need to continue portraying and telling the stories of individuals to get beyond the generic descriptions of the country. As we know, the progress made by women and girls is being suddenly stopped and reversed by the Taliban regime


This week filmmaker Ursula McFarlane (@ursulapics on Instagram) spoke about the film she made 10 years ago,The Life and Loss of Karen Woo, and calls for help for the organisations working out there:
“If you have any spare cash this Christmas (and I know it’s tough) please consider donating a little or a lot to one of the charities trying to help over there. @doctorswithoutborders@unicefafghanistan@womenforafghanwomen To be honest, it’s the women and girls who are most under threat.”


The BBC recently released its annual 100 Women report, portraying those who are hitting “reset” – women playing their part to reinvent our society, our culture and our world.This year, half of them are Afghan – a very powerful statement.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-59514598


I also saw that the woman who you may recognise from the Steve McCurry photo of ‘The Afghan Girl’ has in the past few weeks managed to move to Italy

Steve McCurry

Her story, and the impact of this photograph, is perhaps for another blog, but I wanted to end on this image. Not of a migrant, or a refugee, but an Afghan woman called Sharbat Gula.


Happy festive season and end of 2021 to you all. And good luck in whatever you’re doing in 2022. If there are other films you’d like to highlight, or any thoughts on this blog, I’d really welcome any comments here or on social media. And even better, a few shares!

Categories
Asia Film Festival Korea

Documentaries at the border – the DMZ Festival

Coming to Korea you’re in a divided country, still at war. The split in 1949 has never healed. In mid-August, North Korea planted landmines outside a South Korean guardhouse in the mis-named Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and two soldiers lost limbs. For two weeks there were hostile exchanges, with troop buildups and S Korea broadcasting The Voice of Freedom radio station (including K-pop) on banks of loudspeakers.

 

On the weekend I took a train about an hour out of Seoul to  Paju for the DMZ Documentary Festival. Under the slogan ’Shoot the DMZ’ the festival says it ‘wanted documentaries to show the vision of peace and unification for the future beyond the divided reality which the DMZ symbolizes’.

Lots of films, mostly feature length, in smart cinemas in the Megabox chain, all about half an hour from the DMZ.  There was a very wide range of films in the programme.

I saw three films. Holy Working Day, a graduation film about young Koreans picking onions in Australia; an overlong film about a group of Korean yarn bombers called The Knitting Club (maybe I’m biased as I’m also involved in a film on yarn…); and the Australian-produced Aim High in Creation!, by director Anna Broinowski. The festival had invited Anna and many of the directors from abroad to do Q&As after the films, and it was easy to access them.

Anna’s film was a funny and well handled account of her quest to make a propaganda film in the North Korean tradition about fracking, or coal seam gas as the film calls it. She got access to the directors, actors and technicians of the N Korean film industry in Pyongyang, and structured the film around the teachings of Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il in his 1987 Manifesto ‘The Cinema and Directing’.

The film is on Netflix – she said that although many festivals had been wary of the film and didn’t get it, the hacking of Sony’s emails by North Korea around the dreadful film The Interview meant that Netflix jumped in and acquired it. Well worth seeing.

Other directors I got talking to were Brigitte Weich from Austria, who had made  films with the North Korean Women’s Football team – we talked about Dan Gordon & Nick Bonner’s film on the men’s team (The Game of Their Lives) which inspired her to do it. And Sung-Hyung Cho, now based in Germany whose film comparing the lives of two Korean women from either side of the border, Two Voices from Korea, I wish I’d had the chance to see.  Hana Kulhankova, who runs the One World Human Rights film festival every March in Prague was also there – she showed me the 2015 programme, a remarkable range of films and subjects from around the world.

 

On the Sunday I got to visit the DMZ itself, on a ‘familiarisation tour’ with people invited to the festivals, and a mix of clients of the bank which had sponsored the tour. I cycled with the Iranian economic attache, and saw the Israeli ambassador’s wife chatting to two Iranian filmmakers on the tour bus about how much she liked Persian cuisine. Putting some chinks in other borders. After the standard tour of the border installations, we went on a Peace Bicycle Tour along the fence marking the DMZ – a very unusual way of seeing it.  I’ve posted the pictures on Facebook.

 

Having been there I’d now like to try this excellent-looking VR experience from Inner space, soon to be released on Samsung Gear VR

Divided countries seem to be a feature of my life. My mother is East German, and my late father Punjabi. Both countries that were split, one along ideological lines, one on religious lines. The South Koreans I met thought there was no prospect of their country ever being reunited with the people of the North – not until Kim Jong-Un’s ‘dynasty’ died out. The sudden pulling down of the Iron Curtain in Europe in 1989 didn’t seem to provide them with any positive examples.

 

The DMZ Festival absolutely had its heart in the mission to bring a spirit of change to this border area where it often felt that change was impossible.
Categories
Asia ideas Independent Production SBS Television

How Seoul’s Digital Media City matches up to Salford’s MediaCityUK

Korea has created a Digital Media City (DMC) on the outskirts of Seoul and houses nearly all its broadcasters there. Like MediaCity UK in Salford. But way bigger.

 

This is the enormous HQ for MBC, one of the three Korean public channels. Check out its OTT ‘window on  the world’ promotional video on the link above.

 

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These outfits have big in-house production staff, and layers of management that would make even the BBC blush.

 

On Friday I went to CJ E&M, which is a huge conglomerate that runs several stations, and has a mission to ‘create a new global pop culture‘. Ambitious people. I met Hwang Jin Woo, head of Formats – who I’d first met doing a talk to Korean broadcast execs three years ago, and his colleague Sun Jin Sung.

 

We talked about the big shows they do – Korean versions of the entertainment shows we all know – and the drama and features shows that are the staples of their channels. Hwang is in charge of developing formats, and adapting foreign ones.

 

He also showed me the Digital centre. This is meant to be like Maker Studios, to encourage digital creatives to experiment.  It was empty at 11am, he said that was because creatives got up late – it would be fully booked from the afternoon till into the night. There was a green screen motion capture room, and other sets to do programmes.

 

 

And this digital content is the growth area, as every Korean young and old seems to gaze at their large screen smartphones most of the time.

 

In the afternoon I went to see the national broadcaster KBS, meeting Kate Hyein Cho, who I’d seen at Asian Side of the Doc, and her boss Irene Kim. Their large building is right next to the national assembly – no chance of them moving away from government to go to the DMC. A pretty conventional public broadcaster, growing old with its audience. Posters around the building encouraged staff to come up with ideas for the 20-49 age group – the assumption was the their audience would be much older.

 

 

On Monday I’m seeing EBS, the Educational Broadcaster. They’re also moving to the DMC in 3 years time.

 

Salford Media City is built on the same model as the DMC of a ‘creative cluster’ of broadcasters, producers and studios, and was being developed at the same time in the mid-2000s. When I saw the impressive blocks over the water at Salford Quays, I remember thinking that it had been conceived in a pre-mobile, pre-Youtube age (I mean the early 2000’s, younger readers) – when progress meant big buildings full of people. Now creativity is often talked about on a smaller scale – but with bigger reach.  It’s now more about multi-purpose spaces, places that make you want to hang out and have ideas with others, places that are connected.

 

MediaCity_at_night

 

In Korea, with most production in-house, I guess the model of state subsidy for large organisations to pay expensive rents in steel and glass corporate palaces still works.  This was an urban plan all about consolidating the big state-supported production models. There is a similar state planning model for publishing – Paju Book City, close to the North Korean border, is the home to all of Korea’s publishers.

 

Salford has BBC North, ITV with Coronation St, Salford University and good & busy production companies Shine North run by Alex Connock, and drama producer Red. But maybe not as many small emerging companies as they’d like (with the honourable exception of the ones based in The Greenhouse).

 

I’m not saying this is down to the producers being resistant – in the UK, with commissioning centralised in London, the third leg of the ‘production company-freelancer-commissioner’ stool is missing and there’s no particular reason for production companies to be next to the BBC in Salford unless they make Childrens programmes.

 

Alex has written a lot about the effect of a creative cluster in the North of England – see his recent piece on the role of the BBC as a ‘creative kickstarter’ and what sort of investment the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ needs. Salford will grow – but with TV production contracting, the growth will probably come from telecoms, and content work for brands, direct-to-consumer, short-form, foreign clients, rather than British TV commissioning.

 

In DMC, the huge staff bases shunted out to work in MBC, CJ E&M, SBS (the Korean not the Aussie one!) and shortly EBS meant there were plenty of people around. The shops and cafes attracted people on the weekend, unlike Salford Media City. The transport links are good and there’s a proper station there (well, 10 minutes walk away) rather than a tram stop.

 

 

The problem of the DMC is that the ‘software’ in this model, the Korean broadcasters, don’t have a commissioning structure, and have very little idea of how to work with independents. They produce in house, pay peanuts for the occasional indie documentary, and take all the rights. Unless that changes, it’s hard to see how it would become a true creative cluster.

 

Digital Media City didn’t feel much like the digital future to me, unless that future is entirely corporate. There wasn’t even free public wifi that I could find. The idea that to make content all you need is a small camera, laptop editing, lots of coffee and wifi, and some likeminded young people, still seemed a long way away.
Categories
Asia Distribution Documentary Event Independent Production Television

I went to the ATF in Singapore to see what half the world is watching

Last week’s Asia TV Forum was my first visit, and my first visit to Singapore.

Plenty of channels, distributors, funding organisations and producers in an airy exhibition floor in the huge Singapore Convention centre. The event was organised by Reed Midem, with support from the impressive Media Development Authority of Singapore.

It was good to be representing SBS at an Asian market – Australia’s nearest neighbours after all. I had to keep reminding myself that these companies represented a population of 4.4 billion people – in countries where media and television were developing fast.

AsiaGraphic500x335

So should more people have been there? The French were by far the biggest European presence, with 20 companies on two stands – thanks to the support of  TVFI, very well run by Mathieu Béjot. Other than that, there were a few representatives from Europe and the US, but not as many as I would have thought. Beyond and Flame joined me in the Australian contingent, though there were also distributors selling to the Aussie market. Maybe the cost is simply beyond an independent producer, and it’s best left to the distributors.

The emphasis was on entertainment, lifestyle and drama – though melodrama or telenovela might be a better description for a lot of the fiction on offer. Acquisition rates may be relatively low in some countries, but there are a lot of territories and they’re hungry for content. 

I had good conversations with a few channels, and with the MDA, about working together with SBS. I know it isn’t going to be easy, and the SBS audience isn’t particularly used to Asian programming. We show the Chinese dating show If You Are the One on SBS2, and it’s one of the top-rating shows on the channel. Well, the actual title is Fei Cheng Wu Rao), 非誠勿擾, literal translation: ‘If not sincere, then do not disturb.’

If you are the one

The show was based on Take Me Out, remade as Taken Out on Australian Network Ten in 2008 and axed after just a month, only to have its format re-imagined and successfully exported to 19 countries including China. Just goes to show that ideas can have new lives.

Although Aussies are frequent visitors as holiday makers to Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Myanmar and all the rest, it’s hard to find the right way to interest them in content from Asia when they return. I’m pretty convinced that we’ll need young Asian presenting talent to act as a guide to the myriad stories that are clearly waiting to be told. Once I’ve found that it’ll be a question of finding a mainstream audience for them. Anybody know if there’s a blockbuster Indian dating show we could buy?

I’ve now visited Malaysia, China, Singapore, Japan and Korea in the past few months, and know that there are talented and entrepreneurial people to work with. But I also know I’ve only scratched the surface. I think that a lot more ideas need to be generated, and working relationships formed.  I’d like to give it a go though.