Acclaimed Canadian filmmaker, author, and journalist Nelofer Pazira was born in India and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan before immigrating to Canada with her family in 1990. She made waves onscreen with the 2001 film Kandahar, where she played an Afghan-Canadian heading back home to try to find her suicidal sister. In 2003 she co-directed the first-person documentary Return to Kandahar, which follows her personal story of visiting Afghanistan in order to find a lost friend. Her latest film, the drama Act of Dishonour — which she wrote, directed, and stars in — looks at the consequences for women living in Afghanistan who disobey the rules of their community.
Criticize This! spoke with Pazira about Act of Dishonour. Read our Q&A below.
What inspired the story behind Act of Dishonour?
The inspiration is based on experiences of coming across young women in Afghanistan, and other parts of the world, who had wanted to lead different lives and were threatened by various community practices or family pressures. Very specifically [it came] from the incident of a friend of mine who was making a film [in Afghanistan] and had [cast a local] woman. Her husband at the time was away in Pakistan and they were filming in Kabul. Once the shooting was done her husband returned and discovered his wife was on a film set and he actually killed her. It seems unbelievable to think how you could be so savage or horrible to do that but I think if you’re wrapped in [those] kind of community pressures and cultural notions of your honour [than] rationality has no room in that.
What is the film industry like in Afghanistan? Are women allowed to be filmed at all?
Whatever issues that were developing in the 1980s were mostly in relation to TV… women participated in a variety of TV programming but the film industry wasn’t that well developed. In the last few years the explosion of all kinds of networks and media, plus the Internet and the breakdown in the barriers that used to be there before, has allowed a lot of people, and encouraged them, to participate. There are a lot of local films now. There are more women actually getting out and appearing in films and TV dramas. It’s becoming stronger yet it doesn’t mean they are readily accepted by the larger society.
Being your first drama behind the camera was the production challenging for you?
First of all I had a mixed team [of Afghans and Canadians] in terms of crew and cast. But the one big challenge was the lack of proper equipment. We had taken some cameras and film from Canada but finding basic things you need on a set was very difficult. It was interesting because it made you become more creative. We [rented] two fans in order to create a dust storm and discovered neither of them could operate or be fixed. So we ended up using a bunch of guys who were on the set, including some of the cast, to use blankets, carpets and brooms to create dust. It was like the old days of filmmaking where you had to use whatever you could find from scratch to make something happen. Intriguing but frustrating.
You used a lot of non-professional actors. Was that your choice or was it out of necessity?
When we talk about professional actors in Canada we talk about people who have been trained in theatre or film schools. The difficulty of finding young girls in Afghanistan [was that they had to] appear in a film and carry the weight of that character. [Marina Golbahari] had been a girl that was begging on the street and was discovered by one of my friends. We always say that people who know how to beg are the best actors because they learn from a very young age how to be “on” and convince people. She was just amazing and is now on her way to becoming a professional actor.
Did you find a difference directing a drama over a documentary?
The biggest difference is that you can have far more control on a drama set. You have the luxury to create your sets and to work with the characters. Where in a documentary you go along with the pulse of the moment [which is] exciting in a sense because it’s something that you have no control over and you just have to make the best out of it. To me that was a noticeable difference.
How did you find directing yourself?
Terrible. I’ve never been happy being in front of the camera and that is why I started directing… so I can gradually eliminate myself from being on-camera. That was the least pleasurable part of the entire experience personally. The only reason I pulled it off was because I knew the story so well and I had written the script and it was closer to some of the experiences I had already had.
What do you hope the audience takes away from Act of Dishonour?
I hope the audience will watch this and go away thinking not all Afghan women are always victims or suppressed, or that they face all these crises in their lives, but try to understand the tragedies that can unfold in communities that are living with certain customs and pressures. I’ve been sympathetic to the character of the father which has always been a puzzle in my mind. How on earth can someone bring themselves to want to take the lives of their loved ones? I’m not seeking to provide answers with this film but I’m hoping to raise some questions.
Act of Dishonour is currently in theatres.