After three decades under Taliban rule, and despite a decade of foreign occupation, an estimated half or more of Afghanistan’s adults are illiterate.
Even that portion of the populace that is educated and looking for answers on how to rebuild a nation and a society has been severely handicapped by receiving all its information about the outside world from state-controlled media and coalition forces.
Who could have guessed that guidance would come in the form of Big Bird?
“Sesame Street is so interesting because it’s in so many countries around the world, but this is really the only country where adults learn to read and write watching it,” marvels producer-director Eva Orner, who spent the past year exploring the ins and outs of TOLO TV—Sesame Street’s broadcaster in Kabul—for a new documentary. TOLO is Afghanistan’s first independent television station.
“[TOLO] has a cooking show where they teach people how to make Afghan food,” explains Orner. “Because most people forgot how to make Afghan food over 30 years of war.”
“It’s not about war; it’s not about military. It’s about good, smart, kind Afghans who just want a chance at life.”
The Network, which premiered last week at the SXSW Film Festival, takes a look at the media outlet that is trying to shape Afghanistan in positive ways as the country prepares to stand or fall once Western forces withdraw in 2014. That impending pullout motivated Orner, a producer of the Oscar-winning 2007 doc Taxi to the Dark Side, to make her directorial debut.
“We all have our own feelings about what we think should happen with the foreign troops and what we think the future of Afghanistan might bring,” Orner tells TakePart. “But I’m hoping this film makes people take another look at Afghanistan and see it in a different way. It’s not about war; it’s not about military. It’s about good, smart, kind Afghans who just want a chance at life.”
The programming of TOLO reflects the vitality that attracted Orner. The station broadcasts a full gamut of entertainment and information. Fun and frivolous fare includes soap operas and an American Idol-esque singing competition, Afghan Star. More serious offerings are typified by call-in programs for battered women to ask for advice, and a cop show called Eagle Four, which is meant to entertain while it presents the local authorities, who could be under scrutiny after foreign troops leave, in a positive light.
TOLO TV is the brainchild of Saad Mohseni, the scion of a prominent Afghan expatriate clan who brought his family back to help with the country’s reconstruction after the Taliban government was toppled in 2001. Mohseni has since become, as MTV co-founder Tom Freston describes in the film, “the Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan.”
While The Network profiles Mohseni and his family as establishing a remarkable infrastructure for the rest of the country to follow, it also delves into the lives of all the network’s employees. The TOLO workforce has found livelihood beyond a paycheck. The makeup artist learned her craft via YouTube. The talk-show host is incredulous that he read Taliban news at 19 and is providing open-air radio forums for concerned Afghanis a decade later.
For Orner, the general openness of the Afghan people was the biggest surprise of filming. She notes: “Everyone wants you to come home and have tea and meet their family.”
After defying her own preconceived ideas about the culture, the director hopes her film can shake free the fixed identity many around the world have of the country; after all, the Afghans are still searching for an identity of their own.
“People come out of the film and feel conflicted because they’ve never seen Afghans like this,” says Orner. “I think it makes them feel confused and uncomfortable and unsure and a little more sympathetic to the plight of people that have been dealt a really tough card. That’s a good thing for humanity, and particularly for people in the West to be exposed to.”
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Based in Los Angeles, California, Stephen Saito writes about the movies. His work has appeared in Premiere, the L.A. Times and IFC.com. He recently founded the indie film site The Moveable Fest. Email Stephen | @mfrushmore