Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen on Envisioning What a Future Could Look Like for Afghanistan in “In Her Hands”

It is a stark image in “In Her Hands” when Zarifa Ghafari takes her seat at the head of the table in Maidan Shah, the capital city of the Wardak Province in Afghanistan where she was appointed as mayor at 25. Her age is striking, as is her gender when there are no other women in the room around her, but her confidence may be even more so, allowing herself a smile when she tells everyone in the room, “I won’t leave here until you’re all sick of me.”

Ghafari’s time in office would be far shorter than she could expect when only a year into her term when any sense of stability that could be afforded in the country still enduring a decades-long war was thrown into doubt once more when it appeared an American troop withdrawal was on the horizon, providing an opportunity for the Taliban to overthrow the government, yet Ghafari was reluctant to flee the country for her safety, even when being the daughter of the head of the ministry of defense and her own increasing prominence in the already conservative region put her at imminent risk.

The turbulent time is captured in Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen’s engaging film where Ghafari is just one Afghan resident attempting to hang on as the ground beneath their feet shifts in August 2021 when Kabul fell into Taliban hands. Besides Ghafari, who struggles with honoring her commitment to the people of her province while the threat to her well-being becomes obvious, “In Her Hands” offers a mix of perspectives in sticking as closely to Ghafari’s driver and security guard Massoum as he does to her, showing the sacrifice he’s making by aligning himself with a government official when those around him are being heavily recruited to join the Taliban, and provocatively spending time with Musafer, a Taliban commander who knows he looks far older than his real age of 36, frustrated that the country isn’t going back to law that’s even more ancient.

While “In Her Hands” bears witness to history as its subject deal with each turn of events in the moment, one is also allowed to see what the future could look like if Ghafari was able to succeed in her efforts to promote education, particularly amongst girls. Ayazi, who collaborated with Carol Dysinger on the Oscar-winning short “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If You’re a Girl),” and Mettelsiefen, who previously chronicled the war in Syria in “Watani: My Homeland,” make for a dynamic duo when presenting a population susceptible to lure of extremists when all they see in front of them is war and poverty while efforts such as the ones Ghafari tries to get off the ground to better inform the masses will take generations to make a visible impact, facing resistance when small strides can be imperceptible but reveal themselves through the filmmakers’ lens. Following a premiere earlier this fall at the Toronto Film Festival, the film is going global this week with a debut on Netflix and recently the co-directors took the time to speak about why it was important to gain access to Taliban activities to get their perspective and following Ghafari wherever her story led as well as how the filmmakers could support one another when Ayazi herself had to leave the country she grew up in.

How did the two of you join forces on this?

Tamana Ayazi: We started working in 2017 as producers on some other projects, but this is our first time co-directing and I think we both needed each other to make a powerful film.

Marcel Mettelsiefen: I was working in Afghanistan back in 2009, and it was a time where things were hopeful, but when Tamana and I started to work on another other project in 2017, I realized, “Wow, something changed here.” The foreigners started to leave and there was this new Afghan generation, people like Tamana, much younger than me, who started to be the movers and shakers who’ve been well educated and they were ready to take over responsibility. It was 2020 when we realized something was going to change with the peace deals between the Americans and the Taliban, without involving the Afghan government and the Afghan people. That’s when we decided, “Okay, let’s look for strong characters and follow the journey.”

This surprised me in that it wasn’t exactly a biography. Was Zarifa always as central to this as she ended up being?

Tamana Ayazi: When we started, we wanted to make a film about the strong women, but also about the country of Afghanistan – what will happen to the country and to the people if the Taliban comes to power. But in the beginning we didn’t know that it would have so many more layers and we were trying to find the right character, so we contacted Zarifa, and then with the Taliban and we realized that this is journey of the country [with] all different sides taking a journey and it was not an easy journey for both of us and for the team.

Marcel Mettelsiefen: It was very important for us to say, this is not a biopic, and our intention was to do a film about a divided country, which like so many others are torn apart in two different factions and to show the struggle of every Afghan woman against the majority who don’t want to bring change. Zarifa was not [as well] known back then, although we got to know her through a piece at the New York Times [when she] got listed on a list of the most courageous women from 2019. She was becoming a new Afghan female role model for the country, an example of this generation I just mentioned and as Tamana rightly said, it just became so much more tragic and quicker than we expected.

Documentary filmmaking is then to try to understand what is the right way to build this puzzle, to give the 360° on one hand, but show such controversial characters like the Taliban without whitewashing them, but explain how they managed to gain the trust of the population – to play the new Robin Hoods of the disenfranchised – and to show the bigger universal storylines in order to say, “Hey, it’s not only Afghanistan, it’s actually happening all around us, especially men [in general] are angry and think that with violence and conspiracy and blaming the corrupt elite, change is needed. So our intention was to build this very complicated puzzle and still [distill] it down to an emotional storyline.

Was it a challenge to get everyone’s participation?

Marcel Mettelsiefen: It was tricky with everybody including Zarifa. We had to wait for months to get a response [from the Taliban], but we didn’t give up. We kept working on it, contacted them again and again, and finally it did work, but in the beginning they allowed us to film only for two days and then we wanted to go back and spend more time with them to understand and it took us some time, but they agreed and we got the access after a few weeks.

Tamana Ayazi: The tricky part was crossing one territory from one to another. Even at that time, the Taliban were active in some ports of Afghanistan and then the government had the rest of the country, but it was complicated because the Taliban and the government had their own checkpoints and whenever we were in their territory and wanted to come back to other territory, it was complicated. We wanted to be safe and careful, but when you are in a situation like that, you cannot really predict anything, so you have to trust your feelings and just go with it. Whenever we were with Zarifa, it was more tricky because we knew that she was fighting the Taliban and she was under attack already, so it was tricky to spend time with her in Maidan Wardak as well as in Kabul.

As you were putting this together, did anything happen that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Tamana Ayazi: When the Taliban took over on the 15th of August, 2021, I had to flee. I went to the UK and then we were talking on the phone about the storyline and we decided it makes sense to tell it through Zarifa and also Massoum, but also it was to stick to one [issue] because we [wanted to] have different layers. We decided to [focus on] girls’ education, which was the most important one for us because we are not able to solve all the problems that are created in Afghanistan, unfortunately, but at least through this film we can tell the story that has an impact [in terms of information] and find the solution for it. But it took us months to be where we are today.

Marcel Mettelsiefen: Especially if you have the exodus and the entire country collapses, you think, “Okay, where are we right now?” The humanitarian crisis was so terrible, and you could see [Zarifa] was speaking out and her [clear] desire to go back and help that we just had to understand how do we close the film and how does the rhythm work if you have so much in [acts] one and two? So it was challenging.

Tamana Ayazi: It was also interesting for me as someone who was Afghan and a filmmaker. Whenever we were talking about the storyline, I had to remind everyone that this is not only a film, it’s very personal. It’s my life, and [the lives of] so many other women and girls who left or are still in Afghanistan, so it was interesting to put all these things together. It’s not that we had a script – we didn’t and we had a lot of agreements and disagreements, but at the end of the day it was beautiful that we were able to convince each other and make a balanced film.

Tamana, you’ve said before that it was a challenge having an objective view when you’ve been a filmmaker and an activist in Afghanistan, but clearly the film derives power from your personal experience? What was it like to walk that line?

Tamana Ayazi: When it’s part of your life, it’s not easy because you experience it every day. For example, whenever we were talking about betrayal and trauma, I could feel it myself. Whenever we talked about forgiveness in the film, I felt it myself because I had to cross all those things to feel the way I feel today. But Marcel’s involvement was important because whenever I was too involved, he reminded me that “Tamana, we were disconnected, it will be too much.” And then whenever he disconnected, I had to remind him that, “Listen, this is my country.”

Marcel Mettelsiefen: I definitely think what you’re doing in documentary filmmaking, you’re trying to break down something complicated to a storyline and find the right character, but at the same time to realize Zarifa’s journey is not only Zarifa’s journey — this is the journey of every Afghan woman, this is the journey of Tamana, this is the journey of everybody, and we thought this collaboration was very, very enriching.

What was it like to put together the Kabul airport sequence? I can’t even imagine the logistics that were involved in getting the footage and then getting the emotion and the entire scenario to come off the way that it does in the film.

Marcel Mettelsiefen: Our brilliant editor Steve Ellis, who has been editing with me [since] “Watani,” but his master craft just lifted [the film] to a completely new level. Filmmaking is teamwork on so many levels, and we couldn’t be more grateful to have been able to have the strong support of a brilliant, brilliant team.

Tamana Ayazi: And I would like to mention our DOPs because I was not the only one who was in Afghanistan. We had Jordan [Byron], we used Khyber [Khan]’s footage, and as Marcel said, it’s teamwork. we clicked at all these bits, put everything together and that’s what we have now. But they worked under a lot of pressure because for example, Khyber had to flee, I had to flee. Jordan was Australian, so he was still there, but it was not easy for him. And we were not only filmmakers [in that moment], we had to think about security of the character and her family. Whenever we were on the streets, we took all the risks we could [as filmmakers], to be honest, and if you ask me if I will do that again today, I’m not sure. But everything happened really quickly and it was important for us to document whatever was happening to the country.

Zarifa was with you in Toronto, What was it like sharing the film with her and with audiences in general?

Marcel Mettelsiefen: To follow characters for two-and-a-half years, it’s always the same challenge to have people dedicated and to gain trust, but then keep them motivated, and explain them why it takes so long. Most of the time it was Tamana and me alone filming Zarifa. We’ve been a very, very small team in order to get this intimacy, and we’re talking about an Afghan woman in a Muslim world which I am foreigner to. It’s always very, very complicated, but we gained the trust and to keep this trust going was the biggest challenge. Here again, we have to be grateful for as well for their patience and their trust. When we showed it the first time to Zarifa, especially at the premiere on such a big screen, everybody was holding hands and it is a very emotional film. And I think we are very, very relieved that they are on board and that they can use this as an opportunity to raise awareness about what’s going on in Afghanistan, but as well in Iran and in so many other places in the world.

Tamana Ayazi: I remember we were sitting in Toronto with Zarifa [at the premiere], and for Afghans, we were sitting next to each other because it was very heavy for us. So we were like, “What do we do now? Easier to hold hands.” And we were holding hands until the last minute and before the Q&A, I couldn’t control myself. That was the first time when I just exploded. Marcel was there and we did a group hug — it [was] quite heavy. But they’re happy, which makes me happy. It’s important for all of us that the film brings the attention back to Afghanistan because if we ignore it, nothing will change in Afghanistan and we cannot leave the whole country under Taliban operation. It’s not the right thing to do.

“In Her Hands” is now streaming on Netflix.