Face to Face 03.15.18

Virginia Williams says that Afghans want what most Americans want: “Food to eat, good work for pay, and education for their children.”

A lot was riding on Afghanistan’s 2004 presidential election. The wounds of the 9/11 attacks were still fresh in the memories of Americans. The U.S. military continued to occupy the country. And it seemed all eyes – from the U.S. and Europe – were looking at Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic election, searching for some legitimacy to democracy and a test of whether it could work.

But producer and director Virginia Williams was looking at another narrative. Out of the 17 candidates, there was only one woman. This stood out in the midst of the country’s first democratic election and within the Taliban regime, which enforces strict laws against women. “When we heard about her I said, ‘This is our story,’” Williams says.

The candidate was Massouda Jalal, a doctor and mother of three, who would become the subject of Williams’ and co-producer Halima Kazem’s 2008 documentary film, Frontrunner.

Williams spoke to the Weekly about what stood out about Jalal and the elections before the film screens in Carmel.

Weekly: Documentaries, specifically cinematic documentaries, have become staples in film festivals. What were some of the more unglamorous parts of filming and creating Frontrunner?

Williams: There’s nothing glamorous about conflict. And it’s a story about people living in an oppressive regime. There is also the funding aspect. I wanted to tell a story about the Afghan people, and tell a story about the only woman to run for this position. I thought I would get funding, because no one is doing anything like that. But my experience was not that way at all.

What issues did Dr. Massouda Jalal run on?

She said, ‘I’m a mother, I take care of myself, I take care of children.’ She didn’t see or run on tribal distinctions like [Hamid] Karzai. He was from the Pashtun tribe, which is the principal tribe of the Taliban and he had a lot of cronies. I think because she was a woman, she wasn’t shocked that nobody took her seriously.

She wanted to show the country a woman could run as a serious candidate, and she even had some unusual ideas that could work. Number one, she thought the Taliban should never be negotiated with. She thought women needed to be represented more, and [wanted] at least a third of the cabinet to be women. She had ideas for the economy like instead of growing opium – the country’s principal crop – they could grow saffron, which is a lucrative crop.

The election seemed preordained. She did eventually become the Minister of Women’s Affairs, which I think Karzai did for publicity, because it was always under-financed. Today she’s written a book and still advocates for women and all Afghans.

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What was the social and political climate like during the campaign season?

They wanted very basic things. Under the Taliban, they didn’t have jobs or enough food to eat. A lot of their kids weren’t allowed to be in school, especially the girls. There’s misinformation that all men didn’t want their girls to go to school. But that’s not true. Men, especially men who had daughters, wanted all their children educated.

Dr. Jalal’s campaign had a lot of support from men, who would arrive at her house to help. She had support from women too, but they couldn’t just go to her house. She had help from her husband, who is a professor, and their kids.

What does an Afghan presidential campaign look like?

There was this advertising firm from the International Office of Migration that gave equal funding to each campaign, because Afghanistan is very poor and nobody has any money unless it’s corruptly achieved.

Different people ran on different messages. In one campaign it was all about education. Some were all about infrastructure and business. But a lot of it was very much preaching to one’s tribe or condemning another. It was very divisive.

This film was censored in Afghanistan, and it has not been screened or distributed there. Why?

It’s not officially censored. Afghans deserve to see a piece of their history. It’s not an American story. It’s narrated by their events and their voices.

I did approach one filmmaker I knew, but people, they stopped returning my emails, I suspect because Karzai was still in power. It’s a lot of in-fighting.

I should chase that up. Thank you for reminding me.

Marielle Argueza is a staff writer and calendar editor for the Weekly. She covers education, immigration and culture. Additionally, she covers the areas of Marina and South County. She occasionally writes about food and runs the internship program.

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