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After decades of war and an oppressive Taliban regime, four Afghan photojournalists face the realities of building a free press in a country left to stand on its own — reframing Afghanistan for the world and for themselves.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, taking a photo was a crime. After the regime fell from power in 2001, a fledgling free press emerged and a photography revolution was born. Now, as foreign troops and media withdraw, Afghanistan is left to stand on its own, and so are its journalists. Set in a modern Afghanistan bursting with color and character, FRAME BY FRAME follows four Afghan photojournalists as they navigate an emerging and dangerous media landscape — reframing Afghanistan for the world, and for themselves. Through cinema vérité, intimate interviews, powerful photojournalism, and never-before-seen archival footage shot in secret during the Taliban regime, the film connects audiences with four humans in the pursuit of the truth.
FRAME BY FRAME Directors, Alexandria Bombach (left) and Mo Scarpelli (right)
What motivated you to make this film?
[Mo Scarpelli] In 2012, we traveled to Afghanistan in search of a story about perception — how and why do we form our perceptions of a country at war? And how does this intersect what is actually happening on the ground? In Kabul, we met four incredible local photojournalists. They are deeply embedded in the past, present, and future of their country, and their own truths inform their will to take ownership of Afghanistan’s story and reveal a humanness that is rarely captured by foreign media.
We knew that their stories could bridge what often feels like an insurmountable divide between Afghans and Western audiences.
The world is hankering for a more in-depth and honest view of life in today’s Afghanistan and the issues Afghans face as they stand on their own to rebuild the country. We also knew that this story couldn’t be more timely. Right now, the future of Afghanistan is mired in uncertainty. The government has just transitioned power to a new president. U.S. security forces are pulling out, foreign media is shuttering bureaus, and aid — which helped jumpstart Afghanistan’s free press movement — is dwindling. After more than 13 years of historical growth, free press stands as one of Afghanistan’s most viable hopes for political and social stability. Now is the time to shed light on the realities of building free press in a country whose future may depend on it.
What are a few memorable takeaways from your experience making this film?
So many! Production was an incredible experience. The photographers were very open with us and understood (as storytellers themselves) what we wanted to do. They trusted us, which is an immense privilege. Afghanistan’s golden light, beautiful scenery and colorful streets made it easy on us — everywhere we went, we found inspiration to make a beautiful film. Post-production was very difficult at times, because we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do the subjects’ stories justice… but it was then so rewarding to find an audience connecting deeply with them when the film was done. One of the most amazing things was when the four photographers visited the US for several festivals, and we got to know them as friends. This was a life-changing time for everyone involved.
Is your story what you thought it would be–how did it evolve from day one, to the very last day in post?
Everything changes all the time! But we knew from the start this had to be a story about human beings, and tapping into who they are, giving a very deep and honest glimpse of their experience. That notion remained throughout every stage of the process.
Any developments since releasing FRAME BY FRAME?
We have recently screened the film for the President of Afghanistan, along with the US Embassy, National Press Club and other institutions with decision-making power for free press issues — the reactions have been incredibly visceral and we are hoping the film stays with those who work on protecting local journalists anywhere in the world. There’s also an update at the end of the film on what the subjects are working on.
If you could narrow it down, what’s one film that has inspired your filmmaking career most?
ONLY THE YOUNG
What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process?
Surprises. Everything goes ‘wrong’ in documentary in that nothing pans out the way you may have thought it would. But when you see that as an opportunity to shift the story or make the obstacles a part of the story, and when you trust it will turn out fine, it’s a sweet wild ride.
What did you shoot on?
Canon 5D, a little with the Canon C300. We needed a reliable work-horse camera, light-weight and easy to move quickly with. Also, the subjects of the film use the same / similar cameras, so we could blend in with them + other photographers in the press pool, etc. while shooting with the 5D.
What were a few stylistic choices or techniques that you used to help tell your story?
We wanted to make a beautiful, cinematic film — we had never seen a documentary that captured the immense beauty of the country before. So, it was important to us to take our time, be diligent and intention in the cinematography. We were inspired by and to try our best to create images that would even come close to the incredible photography of the subjects in the film.
What’s one item you always take with you when shooting out in the field?
Quarters… great tripod key!
What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?