The powerful documentary Tell Spring Not to Come This Year is released in UK cinemas tomorrow (13th November) and we’ve been lucky enough to sit down with its director Saeed Taji Farouky. Read on as we talk to one of the most interesting interview subjects this site has had as we talk about the underrepresented story of the Afghan National Army, impartiality vs subjectivity in documentary filmmaking and much more…
Hello Saeed and thank you for taking some time out today for this interview!
Firstly, in your own words, could you introduce our readers to Tell Spring Not to Come This Year?
Michael McEvoy and I filmed, over the course of one year, with the Afghan National Army (ANA) as the NATO mission was ending. We wanted to see the war from their perspective, after years of documentaries about foreign troops in Afghanistan, and finally hear from the Afghans themselves. We also wanted to know what the war was going to look like for the foreseeable future, now that the ANA has inherited America’s war.
Did you start out with a clear agency, did you set out knowing exactly what you wanted to capture in your documentary? Did that shift and change once shooting began?
I would never start out knowing exactly what I wanted to capture in a documentary, otherwise there’s very little reason for me to make the film. Making a documentary, for me, is as much about exploring the subject for myself as it is about making a finished film. I want to learn as the audience is learning. The whole idea of the film was to learn what we weren’t seeing in the mainstream media about the war, so I couldn’t start knowing what story I was going to tell, because I couldn’t know what I didn’t know. We knew that we wanted to film with them over the course of a year, and that the year would end at the same time that NATO would declare their mission officially over. We knew what the general timeline of a year fighting with the ANA looked like, but any more than this we had to discover along the way.
The ANA’s story has been so absent from our screens and the lives of the Afghan people so misrepresented here in the West that the film feels like a welcome, almost nourishing breath of fresh air. How conscious were you during filming of how you were giving a voice to those who aren’t usually heard? How did it shape your approach?
The film was absolutely an attempt to get Afghan voices into the mainstream media and cinemas, so we were always conscious of the absence of these voices. But it wasn’t simply a project to give them a voice, because that would be repeating the mistakes of most foreign journalists who don’t think enough about who’s in control when they’re working. It was about collaborating with them to tell their stories. We couldn’t give the Afghans a voice, because they already had a voice, but their voice is being systematically suppressed. All we could do was work with them to turn their experiences into a film that would hopefully tell a good, compelling, moving and revealing story.
I’ve heard you talk in the past about how the relationship between subject and filmmaker can become complicated as you get to know them, arguably making impartiality impossible. How do you think your relationship with the film’s subjects influenced the film? Would it have been possible to make the film without them getting to know you to some degree?
I actually don’t advocate for impartial documentaries. I think documentaries are, and should be, subjective, so the notion of the objective documentary should be abandoned. But subjective shouldn’t mean inaccurate or misleading, it means acknowledging that every film will be shaped by our perspective, and the perspective of the people in the film, no matter what. And, in fact, this isn’t a problem at all. It’s not something we should try to avoid. What makes documentaries interesting is their point of view. If you want to deny that point of view you might as well write an academic article rather than make a film, and try to remove as much personality out of that article as possible. I think people want to see unique voices in film, so we should strive to make films with unique, personal voices. So, from that perspective, it was essential we get to know the people we were filming with very well. Michael already knew many of them well, but it still took us a year to get to the real heart of their stories. A year of interviews, and spending time with them, listening to them, watching them and just understanding what their daily lives were like. It was also a year of building trust, explaining to them that we were interested in the sort of stories you don’t usually hear about in the news.
My relationships with the people in my films doesn’t just influence the film, they are the film. That’s how I make films. I’m much less interested in plot or narrative than I am in seeing and capturing new perspectives, unique moment and relationships. That relationship between the person in the film and the camera / filmmaker is central to this approach. They have to be willing to give a lot to you as the filmmaker, and in return we have to be willing to give them the respect they deserve as human beings. That doesn’t mean making a safe film that everyone will like, but it means making a film that isn’t simply based on exploitation.
It would have been possible to make the film without establishing a real understanding between us and the Afghan soldiers. But it would have been a completely different, and probably terrible, film. But the fact is this is how a lot of documentaries are made, with very little attempt to establish real communication, and with disdain – rather than respect – for the people in the film.
It would be interesting to hear what you found to be the most challenging aspects of putting the film together. Both on the ground during filming and then also when you were back and editing it together…
The most challenging part of filming was getting passed the obvious questions and answers and reaching a point that was more revealing, more surprising. Because representations of war are so filled with cliches and propaganda, it’s easy to make a war documentary that tells us absolutely nothing new. We could very easily have made this film in 3 weeks as a shallow, 2-dimensional reflection of all the news we’ve already seen about the ANA, with simplistic sound bites and rhetoric about heroism, sacrifice, etc. We wanted to get beyond all that. We made a very conscious effort to avoid anything that looked like a war cliche, and this is actually very difficult to do because the representations of war we’re faced with every day in the West are so pervasive, so well constructed and manipulative that it takes a huge effort to get out of their orbit.
Do you find the documentary form to be generally more freeing or more truthful than a feature film? Do you think you would try and tackle something like this story through fiction one day? Why?
I don’t think the form is the deciding factor. I think the difference is your approach. There are documentary filmmakers who, as far as I’m concerned, are making fiction because their films are so constructed, manipulated and directed that there’s almost no difference between what they’re doing and what a fiction director would do. This is actually a huge problem in the British documentary industry in general. The funding and distribution structures now are so terrified of risk and unpredictability that the films that succeed – that get well funded and distributed – are as close to predictable, safe, classical narrative fiction as you can get.
I think if you’re trying to decide whether a story should be a documentary or fiction film, then it’s probably not a very good idea for a documentary to begin with. A documentary should be interesting and compelling because it’s real, unpredictable, unfolding on camera, because the people are real and their challenges human, and because the audience is learning something new as they’re watching a raw and dynamic life. It’s much more than just a story or plot summary that can be turned into a fiction script. I would love to direct fiction, but I don’t have any trouble deciding what film I’d like to make as a fiction and which one will be documentary because they’re usually completely different.
And finally, what else do you have coming up in the future which we should be looking out for Saeed?
I haven’t started my next film, so I have no idea. I work very slowly, sometimes it takes me years to find something I want to make a film about, so for the moment I’m just working on releasing Tell Spring.
And that’s all folks! Tell Spring Not To Come This Year is in UK cinemas from tomorrow (13th), will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!