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Doc Star of the Month: Zarifa Ghafari, 'In Her Hands'

By Lauren Wissot

Zarifa Ghafari, an Afghan woman with black shoulder-length hair, wearing a black coat and a red patterned scarf and a surgical mask around her neck, is sitting in the back seat of a moving car, looking out the window. From Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen’s In Her Hands. Courtesy of Netflix ©2022 Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen’s In Her Hands follow the unlikeliest of protagonists, with a backstory that practically begs for Hollywood to come calling. (Though Hilary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, co-founders of HiddenLight Productions and the film’s EPs, did answer the call.) While still in her 20s, Zarifa Ghafari became one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors and the youngest to ever hold that job. And she was appointed by the recently deposed President Ashraf Ghani to the leadership role—not in relatively tolerant Kabul, but in Maidan Shahr, in the conservative province of Wardak, where the Taliban have long had widespread support. Nevertheless, 2020’s International Woman of Courage, who would go on to survive three assassination attempts, seemed to be making her mark when the filmmakers started following her inspirational tale that very same year. But then a fateful decision in a faraway corridor of power was made that changed the course of the film—and Afghanistan’s history (yet again). 

Luckily, Ghafari managed to hold out in Kabul right up until its devastating fall—with the camera, surprisingly, continuing to roll. And fortunately for Documentary, the passionate advocate for women’s rights in Afghanistan, who continues her activism from her new refuge in Germany, found time to serve as our November Doc Star of the Month. In Her Hands releases globally on Netflix on November 16.

DOCUMENTARY: How did you first meet the filmmakers? What made you trust them enough to agree to let them follow you with a camera?

ZARIFA GHAFARI: It was late December 2019 when Tamana and Marcel first approached me. By that time I had already done a lot of media work, and was used to talking to international journalists who wanted to write a story about me as one of the few women mayors in Afghanistan. 

At that time I was very focused on my work in Maidan Shar. The peace negotiations between the US government and the Taliban had begun, and we Afghans knew that a big change was coming. So I took every opportunity to advocate for the rights of Afghan women. I assumed Tamana and Marcel wanted to do a short TV report about me, like all the other journalists who would meet with me for one day to do a two-to-four-minute report. But then I learned that they were interested in following me for a much longer period of time. So between January and March 2020, they followed me twice for over 10 days.

Trust is first and foremost a gut feeling—either it works or it doesn't. And I felt very comfortable very quickly having them around. Tamana is an Afghan, and we connected easily. And with Marcel I realized very quickly that he understands my country and our struggle. Overall the film is about my country, which I owe a lot to, so I am happy with it. At a time in which Afghanistan is no longer a topic for the world media, we can provide pictures of Afghanistan as a whole, along with the numerous reasons for the fall of the country to the Taliban.

D: What was off-limits to the film crew, either for safety or personal reasons?

ZG: I gave them full access to me and my life—which is something that is quite unusual in a country like Afghanistan. In my country there are a lot of restrictions; very rarely do you let other people share your private life. But I knew that if you want other people to feel the struggle we Afghan women go through, you have to open up. I shared my journey with them in the hope that people could identify with us through the film.

D: Were there certain circumstances in which the camera protected you—and other situations where it increased the danger? Were there specific safety protocol discussions with the film crew?

ZG: Tamana and Marcel filmed me from January 2020 until I had to leave my beloved country on August 21, when the Taliban invaded Kabul. Those one-and-a-half years were an absolute roller coaster ride for me. During that time, the Taliban tried to kill me three times; they brutally murdered my father in front of my house; and so many other tragic events happened to my country and my people. 

Tamana and Marcel often accompanied me on my trips to Maidan Shahr and back. There were always only two of them; it was not a big crew, so we could be inconspicuous. No special security protocols were discussed. I had my bodyguards, but otherwise, we Afghans have become very accustomed to living in a country where others want to silence us. We have learned to live with danger. 

And I decided a long time ago not to give up, but to continue my struggle. After every attempt on my life, and even after the murder of my father, I always went back to my office the day after—to show them that you will not silence me.

D: Were you always aware that the filmmakers were also following the Taliban? How do you feel about that? Did it give you any pause regarding your own participation in the project?

ZG: Tamana and Marcel were very transparent from the beginning. I knew that foreign journalists were starting to get access to Taliban areas, so I wasn't particularly surprised that they were filming them as well. To understand Afghanistan you have to talk to all kinds of people. And to understand what we women are up against, you have to know the vision of this movement.

D: What are your hopes, and perhaps fears, now that the film will be available globally— though not in your home country?

ZG: I hope and wish that this film will help us Afghans to draw the world's attention to the needs of the Afghan people. A lot of mistakes have been made on so many levels. And it's the Afghan people who are paying the price for that. 

I feel tremendously happy that we are getting such a big platform to show the journey of our country, the journey of women in a male-dominated society, and the hope and struggle (and strength) of Afghan women for a bright future ahead, despite so many losses. More specifically, I wish to draw the attention of the world’s people and politicians to the urgent need for secondary and high school openings for girls in Afghanistan.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.