Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War: An Interview with Michael Sheridan

Minneapolis curator and arts writer Tricia Khutoretsky interviewed Michael Sheridan, Filmmaker and Director of Community Supported Film,  for 10 Years + Counting:

I know more about Afghanistan from talking to Michael Sheridan than I’ve known in the 10 years since we have been at war. That’s pretty disappointing, on my part. On the other hand, it is a testament to the wealth of knowledge that Michael has about the country within which he began work on a documentary, Brewing Tea in a Kettle of War. The need for insiders on this project led to his film training program culminating in the making of 10 films by Afghani storytellers, a collection titled “The Fruit of our Labor.” Michael’s intent was to provide a worthwhile and sustainable aid program, while also sharing with an American audience an understanding of Afghanistan beyond the battlefront.  As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, this certainly is something we can reflect on, how far we have come without knowing much about the country we contain in a state of war. In simply asking Michael how and why, a flow of lucid insight into an entangled place unraveled. The potential for the films can only be great, though the challenges are complex. We take for granted that our knowledge comes with ease, despite our frustrations with channels of biased media and reality television. In Afghanistan, the difficult place for real life to be is on a screen.

Community Supported Film training.

How did you begin outreach for the film training participants in Afghanistan? How many people applied?

I have a partner co-producing Afghan organization, one of the best community media organizations in Afghanistan, The Killid Group. They do mostly print and radio, with community radio stations across the country. Through them and my own research and networking, we did outreach as much as we could across the country. We had 70 applicants and we interviewed 35 of them, we selected 10 participants from 3 different ethnic groups and included 4 women.

How difficult was process of reaching across the different ethnic groups? 

The ethnic division is another extremely challenging and complex issue. As much as I know and understand about ethnic conflict and the ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan, it is still amazing to be in a room and have one ethnic minority, the Hazaras, laughing and carrying on as they do generally loud and gregarious, when a group of Pashtuns walk in and the room goes dead. Literally everything just stops. During the training one of the most remarkable responses on the evaluations was what an amazing multicultural experience this was for them (the trainees). It made me realize that for the most part, people don’t have any experience crossing ethnic lines.  For this program, they had to be in a place where they would be accepting of ethnic issues and gender issues. 

What else was used as criteria for selecting the participants?

We also had to ask about whether or not it was okay that some of the sample films might have people who weren’t fully clothed, in terms of their legs and arms. Afghanistan is one of the most conservative places on the planet, and that conservatism plays out in ways that, for outsiders can be really hard not only to imagine, but to conceive that people carry on with such constraints. The criteria was also such that people didn’t need experience in actual filmmaking, but needed a background in some form of storytelling. One of the focuses of Community Supported Film is also to educate the storytellers about getting people to concentrate on issues of social and economic development.

Community Supported Film training.

How intimately or connected did you expect participants to be with these social/economic issues? What comfort level did they need with the subject matter?

The training really came out of my experience trying to make a film in Afghanistan in 2009, so originally the training was about assembling a team of Afghans who had an intimacy with rural Afghanistan. It was preferred that we found people who had families or access themselves to village life and who felt comfortable in that environment. With the turmoil in Afghanistan, there is a lot of dislocation but people in Kabul still have family or roots in the villages, and we were looking for people who could get access very quickly. Really being able to film is about having close family or tribal relations, its almost impossible without that kind of intimacy, to get the trust and the security that you need.

With so many intricate elements to consider from ethnic divides to gender issues… given these complexities, how did you finally select 10 candidates?

Mostly, I wanted them to be able to use what they were learning in their own work, so they needed on a practical level, to be able to talk about how they imagined using what they learned in the future. But it was extremely difficult to judge all the criteria within a culture that isn’t yours, in terms of really honest interest. This isn’t a kettle of roses here, you are dealing with people who are psychologically, economically, socially shattered and you can’t idealize it. There are a lot of trainings going on in Afghanistan and a ridiculous number of “opportunities” that don’t go anywhere. Afghanis are used to the run around and seeing what they can get real fast. You really have to dig down to find the people who have the best intentions and are headed in the direction you want to partner with.

"L is for Light D is for Darkness" film still.

How does word get around… how is information is shared in Afghanistan?

One of the reasons I’m interested in having CSF develop in places like Afghanistan, is that information moves through misinformation. You wouldn’t believe what people tell each other. People who I respect and trust immensely would tell me the craziest things. The distrust and way in which information is misused is remarkable. It’s true on all sides from the government and the insurgents to the extremist– they all play with information. In a place with as much illiteracy as Afghanistan, it is fairly easy to misinform people quickly, spreading rumors and conspiracies. It is not a place where intelligent choices are made based on good information.

So how does documentary film play role in this culture?

In the last 8-10 years they’ve gone from 0 television stations to anywhere from 35-40 stations. They sprout up and disappear quite rapidly, but there’s a lot of television and most of it unfortunately is soap operas. In a place as traumatized as Afghanistan it will take many years before the public wants anything besides entertainment. Cultural organizations try to do weekly screenings of important films on Friday, prayer day. But there isn’t a cinema in Kabul, a place to just hang out and watch films, Kabul shuts down at night and people go home. This is true for all of the cities and outside of that you get into environments that don’t have electricity. But there is a strong committed Afghan community working towards growing an environment for excellent news coverage, documentary storytelling and slowly for cinema and film. It will be a long 20 to 30 year process of slowly developing an appreciation and understanding of the value that video journalism and documentary play in the important process of informing yourself.

Despite the challenges of sharing the films in Afghanistan, are the films intended for an Afghani audience or American audience? Do the films resonate with the two cultures equally?

There’s never a perfect balance in terms of the ability of film to speak to two different cultures and places. Some of the films will be more successful in different environments. The intent is to try and make a collection of films that can raise awareness, open eyes and start good conversations in both places. The first problem in Afghanistan is that there isn’t a film tradition so the conversation at first is about the actors and actresses. They ask: ‘how did you get them to do that and say that?’.  Typically the term “director” is assumed to be a controller and the term “character” is assumed to be an actor or actress. The filming of reality is received with: ‘Why would you bother? What’s the use of that? We know reality.’ This would also be assumed culturally, to be a problem. Why would the people in the film have allowed you to film their own lives? And certainly the women should not have been filmed.

"Water Ways" film still.

So how do you address cultural differences regarding the acceptance and understanding of lived reality film?

As part of the process, we had the filmmakers themselves to go out and show their films, talk about them and defend them in a positive way.  This was challenging because particularly the men in the audience, would be quite aggressive or the audience would question the honesty in the films. If the film at all appeared to be critical– one film deals with a woman who works as a construction worker on the streets while looking for her husband who is a drug addict– the classic response was: ‘why would you ever select a negative story like that? You must have created that story. I’ve never seen a woman working construction and then even if it is true, why wouldn’t you make a story that is positive about Afghan culture?’ But in some ways this is what makes it all the more exciting, because you truly see a process of revelation about the power and potential of this kind of filmmaking.

Afghanistan and Iraq both obviously feel misunderstood and misrepresented and there are various reasons for this. But I feel that Afghanistan seems even more distant and less discussed than Iraq. From your perspective, why is this?

Geopolitically, I think that Afghanistan is just much further out of the picture. There wasn’t much to talk about in relation to American daily life previous to 9/11. Iraq effectively has been under a dictator, but it is a country with infrastructure and institutions, major business, a middle class, culture and all the things that one could relate to if one tried. Whereas Afghanistan for 30 years, at least from an outsider perspective, has been nothing but a war zone and place of civil war and in-fighting. Beyond that, it hasn’t had the stability to have interaction with an international community. It is the second poorest country in the world, eighty percent is agrarian and it is a futile society. Relating to that for a modern society, except on very quaint terms, can be almost impossible.  The social, economic and cultural codes are really untranslatable for many people.

Having awareness of these problems from years of research, you’ve said that your goal was that the CSF training program would provide an important kind of “effective aid.”  Did the training program provide the aid that you had hoped to offer?

I wanted Community Supported Film, the training and filmmaking process to live up to the very best principles of local participatory development, in which local people own the process.  I hoped to try and derive what someone like myself, an outsider, could provide. This has been more difficult to implement than I imagined, despite having made a lot of films on this exact challenge. The training was successful in the intent to not be based on a single project but on an engagement process. Hopefully we will develop the capacity, infrastructure and funding to do this in other places like Haiti and Southern Sudan. But it has not been easy, there have been a lot of challenges trying to do something like this in a place this difficult to understand. But we are very happily licking our wounds, understanding, learning and moving ahead.

Through October 7th, a full version of each of the 10 films will be available to view through, in reflection of the last 10 years at war, 9/11 and the invasion anniversary on October 7th. The hope is that the films will raise awareness to the Afghan perspective and bring Afghan voices into the discussion. Michael Sheridan and CSFilm encourage the use of the films (all or some) to bring these issues into your discussions and events.

Future events, screenings and panels are in the works, to stay posted: Community Supported Film on Facebook.

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