Big Think Interview With Sonia Nassery Cole
Sonia Nassery Cole was born in Afghanistan but fled as a teenager to the United States after the Soviet invasion in 1979. From her new home in the U.S., she spearheaded relief and awareness campaigns for her birthplace, even meeting with President Reagan in the White House. Since then, she has been a fixture in the Afghan relief effort. In 2002, she founded the Afghanistan World Foundation, which seeks to improve education, health care, and development in that country and to enhance social opportunities for Afghan women and children.
She directed her first short film, "The Bread Winner," while working with AWF in Afghanistan. Following a young Afghan boy who sells newspapers on the streets of Kabul in order to feed his family of six, it premiered at the Milan Film Festival in 2007. In 2009, Cole returned to Afghanistan to film her first feature, "The Black Tulip"—the first American-backed film produced in post-Taliban Afghanistan. It is the official Afghan entry for the 2011 Academy Awards.
Question: What obstacles did you face trying to make a film in Afghanistan?
Sonia Nassery Cole: Yeah, it’s interesting because I'm Afghan and a citizen of Afghanistan and I live in America, so I produced it and wrote it and funded, executive produced the film because I couldn’t get a dollar from America to fund this movie. When I went to producers and studios looking for money to make this film the script got very high rating, amazing script, and I said well can you give me some money because I want to go shoot it? They looked at me like "Are you crazy, are you out of your mind? It’s a warzone you know. You’re not even allowed to go there as an American and the State Department forbade me to go to Afghanistan and you’re going to shoot a movie and you’re going to take all this equipment. You’re never going to last more than three days. You’re going to come back, so... un-bondable, uninsurable and impossible. Don’t even think about it."
After a really long search I couldn’t get any funding for the film, so I found out I could take a line of credit on my house and the day I found that out I said okay, took the money and got some crew together, the key crew, like cinematographers, set designers, people that you just don’t know if you’re ever going to find in Afghanistan and... went to Afghanistan.
Day one, we arrived. My cinematographer who has worked with Oliver Stone, a very, very good cinematographer that I worked with a long time before we went to shoot the movie to prepare for this film... we arrived and that next morning... we arrived I think that evening, and the next morning there was a bombing of Indian Embassy and I remember I was drinking cup of tea. My cup and tea just flipped over fell on the floor. I mean it was such a massive sound and every window at the hotel that we were staying broke and I remember him knocking at the door and he said: "You know, really appreciate this inviting me here and all that we have done together, but I got to go, this is... there are bombs dropping around.” I said what did you think? It’s a war zone. He says: "Well I didn’t think it would be this close. I'm not prepared for this.” So I lost my cinematographer.
It was a very, very scary rollercoaster ride shooting this movie. I've never experienced something so difficult in my life from day one and it went on and on and on.
Question: How did you avoid the Taliban?
Sonia Nassery Cole: Well, you arrive in Afghanistan you just feel them. Their energy is very vivid. I really tried for them not to know about the film and not use the title, the actual title of the film and just tried to be secretive about it, so they... slowly, you know, they find out. I mean I hired over 90 people and from Afghan film, Afghan workers in cinema to work on the movie. So in Afghanistan the scary part of living there at this time is you don’t know who is your friend and who is your enemy. You don’t know who is going to cut your throat in the morning and who is going to save you if somebody comes and tries to cut your throat. It’s a very confusing moment right now and... that is probably the scariest thing of all because trust is just nonexistent.
And we got a lot of threats to shut off the set or they’re going to blow up the set and we got threats in the hotel that they were going to come and kill us all and we moved from hotel guest house to guest house, U.N. guest house to change continuously because we just wanted to... for them not to find us comfortable in one place. For example, I would decided to shoot in the North and I'll find the next... that morning at 4am as we were leaving I would tell all the drivers of the equipment and all that to just go to the South and we were shooting in the South just to build confusion, but even with all that some really scary things happened.
Question: What were the scariest moments during the making of your film?
Sonia Nassery Cole: I was waiting for a banker to drop off some cash to me. The only way you can function in Afghanistan is you have to have cash because there is no banking system there. There is no credit card. There is no check, so I had a big coat, lots of pockets in that coat, and every day between 100 to 200,000 I would stuff in my pockets and just pay people cash. They were... corruption is beyond words. It’s the second most corrupt country in the world and I think it’s well on its way to be number one after Somalia.
But, so when you see people there is no laws, rules or regulation. You can’t go and say "Well, I just gave you 50,000." He could come back and say: "No you didn’t." You don’t know what to do about that. It’s not like United States well I'm going to call my lawyer. You just it’s gone. That money is gone, so you just you have to feel people and you have to trust. So I needed to make weekly payments to the staff and to the workers and crew and he told me that... I said I cannot leave the set because I was shooting, so if you could please bring me $50,000 by 6pm at this location and he said, okay, I'm coming with a black car. And I had never met him before. He came. I saw a black car parked in front. I saw him and he says get in the car. I got in the car. He says we go around the corner and I'll pay you the money because I had to give 70,000. I had 20,000 and I needed 50,000 and all of the sudden he kept going and going and I am getting almost out the city completely and I said where are we going and he said, “Well how much do you have?” I said "How much do I have?” I said: "Where is my money? How much do you have?" And he said, “What are you talking about?” I said aren’t you with the bank? Didn’t you bring me money? Black car coming in, bringing me the money and he just laughed really like this obnoxious laugh that just chills you in the bone and I looked at him.
I said "What do you want?" And he said, “Well I could hold you and get some money or I could kill you and get some money or if you have some money you could give it to me now depending how much you have.” I said I have $20,000 that was in my pocket. I handed it to him. I showed it to him and I said: "If you take me nobody is going to give you money because I've already written letters not to release me from the Taliban if I got caught, so that’s useless, but you can have this, but you have to take me back right now." And that is how I negotiated my deal with them.
The next thing that happened was... I think it was four days after that this guy who was driving me, a security company it was we changed security companies quite often also because you know you don’t know who is involved with the security company. You know, one of these bodyguards which we had between 80 and 70 a day one of them could be, you know, the one that has ready to kill you. So I'm sitting in my car and with one of these bodyguards. It’s about 3:30 in the morning. We’re going on a set 5:00 and about couple hours of [...], a little bit north of Kabul, and all of the sudden it’s dark so I'm looking for my telephone in my bag. I am searching for it. All of the sudden I felt something soft and I put the light of my phone on it. There is a hand, a chopped up hand sitting right next to me. Every hair in my body stood up. I said oh my God. I said to driver I said stop the car.
I said there is a hand in the other seat and he looks at me and he goes: “Oh, when I was coming to pick you up there was a suicide bombing. The windows were open. Probably some limb flew in.” So I said "Well, get it out of the car." And he goes, “No, no I can’t stop right now. I've got to take you there and then I'll bury it somewhere.”
I still think about that. It just... Honestly you never think something like this could ever happen and then when it does happen and then you have to live with it and it just to see... either this was planned to scare me or if it was a fact that he was telling me in either case it showed to me how cold and callus people have become, how non-important death is. And a limb in the car is like not a big deal. Just to him it was like "Yeah, well another one. You know another problem that we just got to take care of." And the numbness that people have seen so much death and destruction that it just was nothing. I don’t know which one was worse finding that or finding his reaction to it. A lot of little and big stories like that happened.
Question: What rights did women have under the Taliban?
Sonia Nassery Cole: Well you all know women had no rights when Taliban came to Afghanistan. What you don’t know is Afghan women had their rights before European women even knew what that was and American women even knew that. A very sophisticated country in that sense that women who are working shoulder-to-shoulder with men... women—there were nightclubs. You know there pictures I have seen of my mom and her friends wearing high boots, miniskirts, dancing, you know, going to work with beautiful suits you know above-the-knee skirts, high heels. The country went like 500 years backward. That is the part that was really extremely upsetting for Afghan women because if you’ve never seen independence and freedom it doesn’t hit you so hard if somebody suppresses you a little bit further, but if you had complete freedom and It’s all taken from you it is a shock that it’s extremely difficult to absorb and but it was beyond that for me when I looked at my country at that time.
[FILM CLIP: "The Black Tulip"]
Question: How have women’s rights changed since the U.S. invasion?
Sonia Nassery Cole: Today slowly and slowly in Afghanistan... I mean in Kabul I should say in the suburbs it’s so very difficult, but in Kabul it’s changing a little bit. But once you go through a shock like that... A lot of media ask me a lot about, “Well are you working on getting the burqas off their women?” And my answer to that is the last thing that an Afghan woman is thinking about right now is does she have a burqa on or off. She is worried about her life, about her safety, about her family’s safety. She is... poverty is in the highest level right now. She just cares about building a fire, making some rice and feeding her family. The priority of having her burqa off or on is not on top of her agenda.
What we need to for women in Afghanistan is education, education, education, so they can stand up for themselves. And when I'm in Afghanistan I've never worn a burqa. My mother never wore a burqa, neither my grandmother, so it’s not something I've ever seen before. I shot the movie. I made a statement about it. I just refused to dress like that. I wanted to be... one person has to start you know be the example of saying "It’s okay, look at me." Okay, so I have a little scarf, sometimes it was on, sometimes it was off. I wasn’t so paying attention to it covering my face and all that all the time and yes, I got some looks, but I didn’t care about it. I just said "You know, deal with it. I’m not going to do it."
[FILM CLIP: "The Black Tulip"]
Question: Is Islam inherently opposed to women’s rights?
Sonia Nassery Cole: The Koran is... the holy book of Koran has never been redone and rewritten, so it’s very open to different kind of translations, so people can just put their own translation to it, but the essence of Islam is the highest respect for women. For example, in Afghanistan you very seldom in a hotel you’ll see a woman go and change a sheet. It’s always the men and I asked this question. How come the women are not the maids and cleaning up the rooms and all that? Islam men would not like their sister, their wife, their mother to do that job to change the sheet of another man. You call that strict. I call that the highest respect for women. They just want to keep their women protected, but not what the extremists are doing or talking about at all.
Question: Are ethnic codes more to blame than Islam for depriving women of their rights?
Sonia Nassery Cole: Yes, absolutely, but mostly there is very different kind of fragments of Islam. It’s the Shia. It’s the Sunni. It’s the Sufis. You know it’s different kind of ways of practicing Islam that... some are more strict than others. And culture-wise also I think it effects.
My mother is Muslim. My father is Muslim. My grandparents are Muslim from both sides. I've never seen the kind of things that they are talking about as far as women in Islam is concerned, ever in my life and my family pray five times a day. But I've never seen any kind of... My mother is a very powerful woman and she is just shoulder-to-shoulder with my father and worked with him all the time, even when he was a diplomat. My grandmother was the boss of the house, so I don’t know. To me it makes no sense. Saudi Arabia, that’s a whole other culture that I don’t know much about and I don’t know what kind they are practicing, but you know there is a modernizing Islam in certain ways that some open-minded countries are seeing like that—like Afghanistan used to be, like Iran used to be, like Egypt you know Jordan. And there are some women they like it—they like to be covered up and that is their comfort zone, so that is fantastic that for them. But I don’t think that Islam itself says that kind of pressure on women that you just have to be locked up and cover yourself and you have no rights. That just does not exist. It’s the way they are translating it in certain places and regions in the world, again because Islam is a book that has not been modernized.
Question: Should France have banned the burqa?
Sonia Nassery Cole: I think France has no right to do that. I think women should choose. If they want to wear a burqa, if they feel safe and beautiful that way, who are they to tell them what to do? It’s a choice that they make. They live in a free country as France, they could wear it or not wear it. They are not forced by anybody to wear it. But if they choose to, I don’t think any country has a right to tell its citizens what to wear or not wear.
Question: Can Islam and feminism co-exist?
Sonia Nassery Cole: I can only tell you based on my experience with traveling around the world, Islamic world and seeing how women live, sophisticated women live there. I don’t see their rights any different than the rights of American women except one thing. I think the feminism doesn’t exist and that is something that I personally don’t believe in, because I believe that women have feminine power and men have masculine power. And I think if we leave each other alone there is an amazing synergy between men and women that could make this world very beautiful.
And women physically are made differently than men. And there are certain gifts that God has given to women that men don’t have. And there are certain strengths that God has given to men—like go and fight in war—that women could not do. The equality thing doesn’t quite work for me. I don’t want to be equal to a man—I think I have certain strengths that men don’t, so but then shooting this movie in a warzone and having bombs dropping, rockets hitting and threatening phone calls every single day and the only woman, boss, and with over 100 crew in this moment in time in Afghanistan. Many people came to me and said 30 men could have not done what you did in Afghanistan, so what is that certain strength that maybe a feminine person has that just maybe a man wouldn’t, because maybe he will be too logical about it or think that, you know, he could physically beat them. But I just had a spiritual strength in me that I would look at them straight in the eye and say: "What do you want? Come and get me.”
Recorded on October 12, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the filmmaker.
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