Director Sedika Mojadidi on Filming Her Father in Motherland Afghanistan

Posted on July 9, 2010

One in seven Afghan women dies in childbirth. Motherland Afghanistan, airing Sunday, July 11th on Global Voices, introduces the women behind these devastating statistics. Afghan American filmmaker Sedika Mojadidi examines her father's work as an OB/GYN as he struggles to make a difference. Beyond the Box spoke with Mojadidi about filming such an intimate story alongside her father. 

Both your parents are physicians. How did you get into film? I was always interested in movies. I gravitated toward them naturally, from a young age. And in school, I studied film for a long time, film theory and film history.  I was never good in science or math so it’s ironic that I'm following my parent’s story because growing up I wasn't really all that interested in medicine. 

Your voiceover guides part of the film, but it's your father’s voice that serves as the chief narrative. Was this your intention all along?

It was always my plan. Actually, I never planned to be in the film but that emerged out of the process of making it for two years. After the first trip, we looked at some of the footage of me translating and other producers felt strongly about keeping me in the picture. I fought against it but eventually surrendered. I felt strongly from the get-go that the film needed to be from my father’s perspective. The film needed to be centered around him, his work, and the patients he looked after. 

You immigrated to the U.S. when you were very little in 1972. How much of a culture shock was it for you to return to Afghanistan and shoot this film? Overall it was a bigger culture shock than I was expecting. That I had been busy setting up to shoot in the hospitals and dealing with the crew and juggling all those responsibilities made the shock worse than I had anticipated. But it really was a shock to see how much the city had changed. To see neighborhoods bombed and such high levels of poverty in what I remembered as a sleepy city. All of it had changed and all the people I knew as a kid were gone. 

Your film paints a grim picture of guerrilla medicine in Afghanistan. In one scene, your father (and viewers) wait anxiously for an anesthesiologists to show up as a patient shrieks in pain. How hard was it for you to document these real life scenes up close? You know when things like that happen, they are not hard to film. It’s afterwards, screening the footage that is difficult to take. When you’re caught in the moment, there is so much adrenaline and you feel like your capturing something authentic. So you’re trying to stay focused and do the moment justice. But once you have a moment to catch your breath and you feel how sad or difficult those scenes really are. 

Throughout the film your father operates in such a matter-of-fact state, even under such emotional circumstances like when he discovers the death of a premature baby. How were you at controlling your emotions and composure during these moments? I was a wreck. We all knew that little baby was not going to make it. The hospital didn’t have life support equipment and had never delivered a premature baby before. So it was a really awful feeling for those two days that the baby was alive because we were all not wanting to think about the outcome. My father has worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan for 20 - 25 years, so he’s been through this before. He understands that he must keep his distance or he can't really do his work. He’s a pretty straightforward guy anyways, very no-nonsense, but for me it was really hard. It was very difficult and emotional. Again, I tried to behave professionally during filming to make sure we captured all the elements of the story. But that was heartbreaking because she really bonded with her baby and it was hard for her to see that happen. And for me that moment really is the story. 

It really personalizes what it means when you say 20% of infants in Afghanistan will not see their first birthday. You have babies dying at such a rapid rate, so big you can't even grasp what that really means. But then you see what it means for somebody to lose a child and what an emotional and devastating toll that is to take. I hope that moment resonates for people so they see that losing a child is difficult anywhere in the world.

 Following your father and mother on night calls in Afghanistan. How close did you become with your parents over the course of making this film? And did you learn anything about them you didn't already know? I think the film itself, the process, made us closer. I developed even more respect for my dad and his commitment and his sense of mission in Afghanistan. I grew up knowing he worked there but it was something else to see him navigate through those conditions. I started to see the reality of what his work was and developed a tremendous amount of respect for him. I think he also learned a little bit about what I do and so we definitely grew closer. It was a difficult experience for both of us because my father never really wanted to be filmed. He wasn't interested in being filmed and so it took a while for him to get used to the camera and me following him. But now, when we look at film, we have a document of this one particular moment in our lives. We have a document of it, and that makes him really happy. 

What projects are you currently working on? I’m finishing up a series now for ABC News called Boston Med. Next month I'm going to story-produce a pilot for the new Oprah Winfrey channel.  After that I’m planning to go back to Afghanistan to research another project and spend a couple months researching and volunteering with an organization. I hope to continue exploring stories about family, women, and children. I would love to find an Afghan family living in Kabul and follow them around for the year. 

What do you tell filmmakers who come to you for advice? Make sure you really have something to say that no one else is saying.


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