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BN1 talks to director Phil Grabsky about his BAFTA award-winning documentary, My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan, which takes an extraordinary look at life during wartime

My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan – interview

Director Phil Grabsky talks about an extraordinary film for extraordinary times

Early in the BAFTA-winning documentary, My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan, Mir Hussein’s voiceover evocatively reminds us that: “This is a land of tough men.” It’s evidently true. At this stage of this remarkable film, audiences are being confronted by endless searches for firewood on a deforested landscape, the indignity of surviving on butchers’ waste and the practicalities of living with your extended family in what’s charitably described as a ‘cave’. Amongst these occasionally brutal scenes of subsistence is a cheerful and pragmatic little boy. Mir’s story isn’t different to that of many other Afghan kids but viewed on a wider stage it raises conversations about geopolitics, tradition and normalisation.

BN1 talks to director Phil Grabsky about his BAFTA award-winning documentary, My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan, which takes an extraordinary look at life during wartime

The timeline for My Childhood, My Country runs parallel to the most recent war in Afghanistan, originally finding the 7-year-old Mir and his family living alongside the remains of an ancient city. “With 9/11, the Taliban were given an ultimatum by George Bush” says Brighton resident Phil Grabsky, the film’s producer and director. “There was then this international intervention, and they were kicked out. I thought to myself: ‘I wonder who the Afghan people are?’ I was fortunate because camera technology had improved and shrank, so I could just get on a plane.” After landing in Kabul and finding a fixer, Grabsky went off in search of the perfect story. Something which offered a more honest version of this misunderstood country.

“Kabul was an extraordinary place at this time. It was totally wrecked, like Berlin in 1945. There wasn’t a lamppost standing. But it was too obvious to make something there, and capital cities don’t always reflect the nation as a whole.” At the time the second most recognisable city was Bamiyan, where the Taliban had recently destroyed two legendary 6th-century Buddha statues carved into a cliff. Hearing of people living in caves nearby, Grabsky headed up there to further investigate. He was met by a landscape littered with mines, destroyed tanks and crashed planes, decades of conflict leaving their mark.

BN1 talks to director Phil Grabsky about his BAFTA award-winning documentary, My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan, which takes an extraordinary look at life during wartime

Filmmaking is all about stories, but he initially had trouble finding something genuinely compelling. The population was exhausted and unemployed. They were happy to discuss the past, but there was little to build a cohesive narrative from. Then he met Mir, a cheeky lad with an infectious smile who lived with his parents, sister and brother-in-law. Basing the film on him will hopefully encourage audiences to think about his future and the legacy of the NATO invasion. “It was the best decision I’ve ever made. No way could I have anticipated just how many adventures he’d go on.” He spent a year filming the youngster’s life, watching him explore, learning to swim and playing games. This footage would go into the acclaimed documentary The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which was shown on Channel 5.

Returning to see Mir later, for an extended version of his original film, now called The Boy Mir, Grabsky found the young Mir and his family had returned to their village. He was now going to school and dreaming of a future where he became either a headmaster or president. “We decided to stick with him for ten years. There were servicemen and women fighting in brutal conditions every day. We were spending billions. The question is what are these people fighting, dying and getting injured for? How is this money being spent, is it making long term improvements to the lives of Afghans? We tried to tell that story through following Mir’s life.”

As a story, this work sits at the intersection of films like Boyhood, Hope And Glory and Belfast. Because they’ve known little different, even the most horrific of circumstances can become normalised for children. Mir is a young person who has never known peace. But he’s optimistic about his future because of the American invasion. Kids seemingly don’t care about big concepts like the War On Terror, much beyond the sight of an aircraft passing overhead or nervous Coalition troops occasionally visiting their village.

BN1 talks to director Phil Grabsky about his BAFTA award-winning documentary, My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan, which takes an extraordinary look at life during wartime

We soon see Mir abandon school, first working on their crops when the family’s patriarch becomes too weak himself, before working at the local coalmine. But in the background are small changes. Mobile technology is making life easier, businesses are starting up again and the country is seeing some developments. Even Mir goes from walking around with a donkey to owning a bicycle and then onto a motorcycle. The crushing inequalities of life are still very real though. Many of us are cushioned by the convenience of supermarkets and takeaways, yet only 200 years ago 99% of the population were involved in production of food. There are still millions of families like the Husseins, desperately poor and struggling to survive.

Grabsky says his interests have always been in documentaries. Most of his films have been biographical, drawing the viewer into different worlds and presenting them with a range of new experiences. Internationally, cinemas are now more open to documentaries, but it’s not content broadcasters are screaming for. “I’ve had plenty of discussions, where people have said ‘no one is interested in art or classical music’. I fight back ferociously, saying ‘You can create an audience. My kids did not want to go to their first sushi restaurant, but now they love it. You can introduce people to things. Maybe someone doesn’t want to read their first Jane Austin.” He acknowledges that his life has been ‘twin-tracked’ for the last two decades. While doing this project about Afghanistan, his company, Seventh Art Productions has grown into one of the biggest suppliers of art films in the world. They’ve created over 30 lavish onscreen exhibitions, at the rate of around 4 every year, exploring the life and work of the world’s most iconic artists and composers. As we talk, Grabsky is spending a few weeks outside Boston, working on a new film about American realist painter, Edward Hopper.

It seemed ten years with Mir and the Hussein family might be enough. Grabsky’s crew had encountered a couple of unpleasant incidents in Afghanistan, and his family were asking him not to return, along with issues with finding backing. “Funding has been very difficult. Trying to get broadcasters internationally to go from ‘That sounds interesting’ to ‘Yes, we’re in’ has proven to be soul-destroying.” An enthusiastic commissioning editor in Germany persuaded him to carry on with the project, prompting a third film – My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan.

This new version travels with Mir for another ten years, combined with footage from the previous two outings. He’s facing many familiar challenges as he ventures into adulthood, along with even more responsibility. He’s also married at his father’s insistence; the couple starting a family long before they learn about birth control. “One thing which has been consistent, is that Mir has been supportive, enthusiastic, tenacious, friendly and open. We were so lucky with his wife, that she was willing to speak, and was a wonderful woman in her own right.” We follow this new family to Mazar-e-Sharif, which proves to be a massive culture shock for the country boy and his spouse.

Despite enjoying a lot more comfort in the large city, they struggle as Mir can’t find steady work. This father of three is despairing of ever being able to properly provide for his family. But the film’s crew crucially stage their own intervention, helping achieve his dream of making his own films by arranging work for him with a production firm in Kabul. He then spends some of his time filming football matches, but it also thrusts him onto the front line of the nation’s upheaval. Most days see him rushing to document devastation left by suicide bombings. Wide open spaces have been swapped for chaos and daily violence, and life is still uncertain.

For this new film, Grabsky and co-director Shoaib Sharifi blend in archival footage. News outlets from around the world talk dispassionately about events in Afghanistan, alongside politicians offering their opinions on what’s best for its people. “Creatively, that’s a really difficult thing to do. Because you don’t want it interrupting the narrative. You want it as international as possible, so then you’re dealing with foreign languages to find that one sentence, just to get it right so the audience know what’s going on.” This is all in stark contrast with Mir’s daily experiences, whether that involves going to school, tending fields or struggling to provide for his growing family. He tells us he remains optimistic about his country’s prospects, but the pressure is starting to show. And we already know the future holds the Taliban’s return to power and Covid-19, which lends a certain urgency to unfolding events.

BN1 talks to director Phil Grabsky about his BAFTA award-winning documentary, My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan, which takes an extraordinary look at life during wartime

Even with some life-experience, Mir isn’t overly concerned about the Taliban, he’s often only focused on daily struggles. And this is evident amongst the wider population. “They want peace. I’m not sure the Western forces understood that. For ordinary people, both are bad. If the Taliban say ‘If the Western forces leave, we will bring peace.’ That’s very appealing for people, especially men. In an ironic way, suicide bombings have stopped, because the bombers are now in power. It’s safer to walk the streets of Kabul now. Except now ISIS have arrived, and that’s a whole other situation.” What My Childhood, My Country succinctlyhighlights is that these people are essentially just like us. They have the same desires, they have the same sense of humour, they love music, they want relationships and their kids to be educated.

“It has to be said that Ukrainian refugees are being treated differently to Afghan refugees,” says Grabsky. “People immediately think Ukrainians are just like us, whether that’s because of the colour of their skin or because they’re a European country. Afghans are also just like us. Maybe their skin is different, maybe their facial features are slightly different, maybe their religion is slightly different, but they’re as deserving of our help and love as anyone else.”

BN1 talks to director Phil Grabsky about his BAFTA award-winning documentary, My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan, which takes an extraordinary look at life during wartime

Last month, this moving two-decade long study of survival and hope won the BAFTA for Single Documentary. Being Bafta Award-winning should help the film’s profile, and that of any future ventures. “We’ve had a couple of broadcasters in touch with ideas. The main value of it is ‘BAFTA-winning’ will go on the poster. Anybody who has any interest in good films will see the BAFTA mask on the poster, that should make people go to the cinema to watch it.” There’s now plans to make an amended version for theatrical release in September, which provides a one-year update on Mir’s life.

Life is uncertain for Mir. He’s lived with the war almost all his life, and it’s uncertain what will fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of Western forces. But life has to go on, and the Taliban are regaining control of a very different country now. The intention was always to make people think and have a chance to forge informed opinions. There might still be questions as to why we are sending aid to the region, when there’s problems at home, or why so many people leave the country to seek refuge elsewhere. My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan has let us view a complex set of issues through the experiences of a hopeful young man, and perhaps there’s some lessons we can all use. “What I have to do, as a filmmaker, is offer information,” ponders Grabsky. “I spend time looking and digesting all this, then present it to an audience in as balanced and fair way as possible. You can still come away from this film thinking all military intervention is bad… or thinking that without the intervention there wouldn’t have been the progress we did have. Before, I’ve seen politicians expressing opinions on Afghanistan who clearly didn’t have a clue. There’s no black or white, it’s all shades of grey.”

Phil Grabsky and Shoaib Sharifi’s My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan is available to watch now at: www.seventh-art.com, with an updated version coming to cinemas later in 2022.

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