November 9, 2006

Long-lasting plight
After the international attention given the plight of Afghan women when the brutal Taliban was being routed in 2001, the focus in the mainstream media went away, even though the struggle for a basic law-and-order respect for women’s humanity was far from over. (And the Taliban isn’t exactly dead, either.) All this makes Meena Nanji’s searing, wide-reaching documentary “View From a Grain of Sand” — being shown Monday as part of the Jack H. Skirball series at REDCAT — an especially timely addition to the collective history of the plight of women under repression.

For five years starting in 2000, Nanji followed the lives of three women who escaped Afghan turmoil for a Pakistani refugee camp: Shapire, a teacher whose dreams of being a pilot were dashed by forced marriage; a sweet-faced, sensitive doctor from Kabul named Roeena; and Wajeeha, whose uneducated upbringing in rural Afghanistan has been supplanted as an adult by her activist work for the Revolutionary Assn. of the Women of Afghanistan. They are inspiring figures — resourceful, sharp, warm and not lacking a sense of humor — and they provide the necessary personal contours for a subject that needs human details to get its message across.

But Nanji’s film is a history lesson too. She manages to cover 30 years of struggle for Afghan women, which has mostly, tragically, been a case of curbed-then-obliterated advances, beginning with grand notions of gender equality under King Mohammed Zahir Shah in the ’60s and ’70s and eventually slipping into open violence against women, enforced submission and the burka under Islamic fundamentalist regimes that grew after the U.S.-backed defeat of the Soviets in the 1980s.

Overall, the well-assembled mix of archival material, narration, hidden camera footage (the cloaking burka’s unexpected benefit) and Nanji’s interviews makes for a rigorous, sobering piece of social advocacy filmmaking.