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Moving the Needle


The filmmaker and journalist on the future of girls’ education in Afghanistan, “white savior narratives,” and documentary as an antidote to compassion fatigue.

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“En route to Kabul…I met an elderly woman who was traveling from Omaha to visit her extended family in Afghanistan,” writes documentarian Beth Murphy in the Huffington Post. “When I told her I was on my way to work on a project focused on girls’ education, she shook her head at me and drew a finger across her throat.” For the past six years, Murphy has ignored spoken and unspoken dangers and continued making regular trips to a village outside of Kabul to film her latest feature documentary, What Tomorrow Brings. The film chronicles life in a K-12 girls’ school from its inception to the first class of graduating students.

Murphy’s belief in the power of education stems from her upbringing as the daughter of teachers. “The love of learning was with me every day,” she explains in the interview that follows. Growing up in a small New England town in the ’70s and ’80s, Murphy experienced the ascent of second-wave feminism. In college, she took classes that explored women’s rights, but didn’t have to look far for proof that the empowerment of girls and women started with education: her own mother was the first in her family to attend college. After studying history and, later, working in radio news, Murphy first tried her hand at documentary filmmaking while completing a program at George Washington University’s Documentary Center. She later earned a master’s degree in international relations and international communications from Boston University.

Murphy’s skill for storytelling seems at once innate and a product of early experiences. She credits the CBS Reports she watched growing up for inspiring an interest in documentary filmmaking: “They told stories that mattered,” she says. “Stories that made a difference.” In her own films, Murphy focuses her camera on critical social issues to raise awareness and spur action through storytelling—but instead of leading with the issues, she allows the social relevance to emerge from the narrative. Her film Beyond Belief (2007) follows two 9/11 widows as they travel to Afghanistan to work with local widows whose lives have been ravaged by decades of war, poverty, and oppression. The List (2012) chronicles the quest of Kirk Johnson, described as “a modern-day Oskar Schindler,” to protect Iraqis who are being hunted for having helped the American government and military.

In What Tomorrow Brings, Murphy gives us an intimate portrait of the Zabuli Education Center, a girls’ school in the district of Deh’Subz, Afghanistan. The institution, we learn, was founded by Razia Jan, a native Afghan who returned to her homeland after the fall of the Taliban to help with the country’s rebuilding efforts. The film bears witness to the struggles and victories of Jan and the school’s teachers and pupils, as they contend with at times hostile opposition from students’ fathers and uncles, and the village elders. The danger the school’s community faces each day is palpable from the film’s opening scenes: the girls’ bags are searched at the door; each morning, the school principal tests the water to make sure it is not poisoned.

Through Murphy’s lens, we follow the girls inside the school gates, where they remove their burqas. We watch them run up and down the halls, laugh and clown in the classrooms, fret about their exams, discuss their fiancés, or cry at the departure of one of their teachers. We also see them in their homes, helping their mothers with household chores and discussing the future. In a pointed reversal of everyday realities in the village, women and girls are given voice over the men, and they seize the opportunity with fervor.

I met with Murphy at the Terrace Club in Midtown Manhattan. Despite the early-morning hour and the fact that her interview on Morning Joe had been bumped due to Scott Walker’s departure from the Republican primary, she was radiant. Over the clatter of dishes, the hissing of the milk steamer at the bar, and the chattering of tourists around us, she spoke with focus and passion. Our discussion centered on girls’ education in Afghanistan, the power of documentaries to mobilize people around social issues, awareness of one’s own biases, and the perils of filming in war-torn countries.

Daniela Petrova for Guernica

Guernica: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking? What prompted you to launch your independent film company, Principle Pictures?

Beth Murphy: It was the late 1990s, and I was coming out of TV news. I’d been caught up in a world where every day brought another story about a drug dealer, a murder, a car chase—basically, an endless line of empty, negative commentary on the world we live in. For the first time, I discovered there was a name for what I was feeling and recognizing about the negative impact news media can have. It’s called compassion fatigue. With so much bad news coming at us, and voiceless, nameless faces from around the globe suffering in front of us, we can simply shut down. We feel like there are way too many problems in the world, and there’s nothing we can do to solve them. We forget how to be compassionate and start to feel hopeless. I felt like I was at a critical moment where I had to choose if I was going to let this happen to me. And I didn’t want to feel hopeless. I didn’t want to contribute to other people feeling hopeless. I wanted to connect with the world and with everyone in it in more meaningful ways and help others to do the same. I wanted to work toward an antidote to compassion fatigue.

The first name I gave the company was Journalists for Social Justice, and I think that still speaks to our mission today. It has always been important to me to tell strong, character-driven stories that allow for understanding of large, complex human rights, social, and political issues, [where] the storytelling is rooted in finding solutions to those issues. Recently, I’ve joined forces with The GroundTruth Project to spearhead GroundTruth Films, and we’re mentoring the next generation of foreign correspondents and journalists with exactly this mission of solutions-based storytelling on the biggest issues of our time: climate change, global health, human rights, and war.

Solutions require action, and one of the things I love most about documentary filmmaking is that it allows for the creation of powerful impact campaigns that can help mobilize people around certain issues.

Guernica: How did your upbringing and education shape your worldview?

Beth Murphy: I grew up in a small New England town. Both of my parents were teachers: my mom was an English teacher and my dad a music teacher. The love of learning was with me every day. We always had National Geographic in the house—my parents had a subscription—and I loved reading it. My parents also had a very close friend who was a Holocaust survivor. She traveled extensively internationally and always brought back slide shows and artifacts. On Friday and Saturday nights, we’d go to see her slide shows and hear about her experiences. That opened up the world for me in a way that I didn’t have access to otherwise. My dad passed away in 2011 without having had a passport. He did talk, though, about getting one for one of my trips to Afghanistan. He was very worried, and wanted to be ready—I love his expression—“In case I have to go and pluck you out.”

Guernica: You mentioned the idea of an “impact campaign” that can help mobilize people around an issue. How would you describe the impact campaign for What Tomorrow Brings?

Beth Murphy: This December, the Zabuli School will have its first graduation. It’s exciting and historic for Razia Jan, who started the school, and the girls and their teachers. But now what? We realized during our filming that these first seniors—and all the seniors who follow—will not be able to go on to college. It’s completely unconventional in a small village like this to send a daughter off to college, and even if it weren’t, college is too far away, and families don’t own cars or have access to other transportation. And they can’t afford it—75 percent of girls going to this school live below the poverty line. In this village, that means living on less than one US dollar a day.

Since they can’t go to college, we asked: What if we bring college to them? And that simple idea became the basis of the film’s impact campaign. In June of this year, I announced the Build a School Today campaign at the Rotary International Convention in Brazil. Within eight weeks, we raised $115,000 to build the first free private college for women in Afghanistan. A week after the end of the campaign, I was back in Afghanistan filming the groundbreaking. Even after that tremendous start, there are still computers to buy, solar panels to install, and teachers to pay—so the campaign doesn’t really have an end in sight right now.

Now, as we’re talking, the walls of the school are going up. That makes me really happy. And I love the name—the Razia Jan Institute. Razia has become known as “The Mother of Deh’Subz” and I think this is such a beautiful way to honor her.

Guernica: How did you first meet Razia?

Beth Murphy: I met Razia because we were both supporting efforts to help widows in Afghanistan. My part of it was that I was making a documentary—Beyond Belief—that offered a glimpse into what their lives are like, and it explored the deep bonds women and widows share across geographic, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. At the time, Razia—who was born and raised in Afghanistan but had now spent thirty years in the United States—was thinking about going back and helping her country rebuild. When she visited Kabul, she saw right away the disparity between the way boys and girls were treated, and decided girls’ education would be her focus. Her school opened in 2008, and I started filming in 2009.

With the girls and teachers, there was an excitement in the air during filming. It’s not every day that people are asking them what they think.

Guernica: You give us a very intimate portrait of the students and teachers at the Zabuli School. How did you gain this kind of access? Was it hard to win their trust?

Beth Murphy: The elders are the leaders in the village, and at the school they operate a little like a PTO—minus the bake sales and box tops. They were really the big hurdle, the big unknown. Much like the school itself—which wouldn’t exist without their support—we wouldn’t have been able to film without their support. I give all the credit to Razia for having built such a trusting relationship with them before we arrived. It’s unique and unusual for her as a woman to have been able to do that, and it really paved the way for us to film and build a similar trusting relationship.

With the girls and teachers, there was an excitement in the air during filming. It’s not every day that people are asking them what they think. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Society is constantly reminding them that they don’t matter, that staying hidden and voiceless is what’s expected of them. And here we were saying, We really care a lot about what you have to say, and there are a lot of other people around the world who do, too. It was more in line with the way they feel and think about themselves. It’s an incredible bond that happens between filmmakers and subjects, and it happens when the camera is on, but also when it’s off.

Guernica: At one point in the film, one of the girls tells her mother that her uncle doesn’t want her to go to school anymore because she’s engaged. Her mother says, “I don’t want you to end up blind like me…. It doesn’t matter what your uncle says. I registered you with the blood of my heart.” Can you talk about what this means?

Beth Murphy: It’s a very powerful expression in Dari. She really is saying that it took all she had to enroll her daughters in school because of the resistance and the challenges she faces. The reality for this mother is that her life would be easier if her three daughters were at home helping her with younger children and household chores—and if she didn’t have to confront uncles and brother-in-laws and future in-laws who stand in opposition to educating girls. But here she is, having an appreciation of how cut off she is from the world because she doesn’t have education.

Guernica: She is blind without it, to use her powerful metaphor.

Beth Murphy: And yet, despite this blindness, she sees so clearly how important it is for her daughters to get an education. She isn’t willing to take the easy road. And this is true for so many mothers who envision a different life for their daughters than the lives they themselves have.

Guernica: You started filming What Tomorrow Brings in 2009. Was there a change in attitude in the village over time, both toward the school and toward your filming there?

Beth Murphy: There were ebbs and flows. When there was tension between the village elders and the school, there was tension between the village elders and the film. In the beginning, they didn’t want a girls’ school at all. They wanted Razia to build a boys’ school. The perception at that time was that she would fail and eventually be gone, and then they could do whatever they wanted with the school. But that’s not Razia. She stayed the course. During construction of Zabuli, when a bulldozer was brought in to prep the lot, a man told Razia he was going to lie in front of it and not let it move. He said he would never allow the construction. Razia didn’t blink. She told him, Fine, that sounds like a great idea—then he could be buried there. He never showed up.

A couple years in, when the school started bursting at the seams, Razia added a third floor to accommodate all the students. Some of the men in the village didn’t want that third floor going up. Unfortunately, around the world in places of conflict, schools are often taken over by combatants. When the third floor was being built, there were some men asking: What if? What if the school is taken over? What if we can be targets because of it? During this time, our filming was confined to the school and our access to the village more restricted. And guess what? Razia stayed the course again, and got a renewed commitment from the village elders to keep those what ifs from ever happening. So, yes, there have been challenges. But the story here is one of incredible success.

To move the needle on any issue is extraordinary, but on one as seemingly intractable as the attitudes of conservative Afghan men, it is almost incomprehensible.

Guernica: And now the village is supporting the construction of a women’s community college.

Beth Murphy: Well, this is the story. To me, this is the whole story. To move the needle on any issue is extraordinary, but on one as seemingly intractable as the attitudes of conservative Afghan men, it is almost incomprehensible. Especially when you consider the speed with which it has happened. This seems like a generational shift, but it’s been only eight years.

In 2008, these men questioned building a K-12 school. They couldn’t have imagined what it would be like to send their daughters to school because they’d never done it before. All they could think of at the time was: Who is going to make breakfast or clean the floor? And why would the education of a girl be of benefit? And what terrible, rebellious ideas might this school foster in their daughters? But now they are seeing the real value of education and the impact it is having on their lives. There are families in which both parents are illiterate, and now their daughters can read letters. What I can see is that these fathers are really proud of their daughters. They see how happy their daughters are, and are coming around to share in that happiness.

Now, as the first seven girls are poised to graduate from high school, all of them are being supported by their fathers—enthusiastically, I might add—to go to college. And these men are already talking about what happens beyond college, and about the careers their daughters might have. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the college last month, six fathers laid in the first foundation stones. One of them said, “I hope doctors and ministers come out of this college.”

Guernica: What was your experience of filming in Afghanistan like? You mention, in one of your blog posts, a Western woman being abducted.

Beth Murphy: That happened while I was [in Kabul]. I was on Street 7, and she was taken from Street 9. The Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, they’ve all made it very clear—in words and deeds—that they are targeting Westerners. When my colleague Jim Foley was so brutally murdered, that for me was a very clear defining moment of before and after. It forever changed how I appreciate the dangers in the field and how I approach situational awareness and security.

I don’t like focusing on myself with this question, though. I’m choosing to be there. I can leave. The people who live there—they are the real victims of this violence. Here and across the country, teachers and girls have so much courage to wake up every day and do something that some of the most violent people in the world don’t want them to do: Teach. Learn. Be who they want to be.

Guernica: What was your experience of being a Western woman documenting—and trying to affect change—there?

Beth Murphy: When I first went to Afghanistan in 2001, and for several trips after that, I had the sense that being a Western woman in Afghanistan was like being a third gender. I was able to share experiences with Afghan men and women in ways that they themselves were not able to share with one another, and in ways that Western men were also not. Looking back, I’m disgusted with myself for the sense of superiority I felt because of that.

Now, I can’t help but feel inferior. When I’m out in public in Afghanistan, I feel inferior because I’m doing everything I can to stay hidden, silent. I feel inferior because I am seeing firsthand the impact of America’s foreign policy and can’t help but feel like a living, breathing representation of that—despite my own personal views about that policy. It reinforces to me that I want to be part of the solution—and I want my work to be part of the solution—not part of the problem.

Even within the confines of the school I feel inferior, because here are these girls who have been born with so little and are accomplishing so much. They are thoughtful and hardworking and modest and artistic. They’re trailblazers. I know they look up to me, but I don’t think they realize how much I look up to them. We have it backwards in the West. Not only are we led to believe that life in the West is “better,” but that we are “better” because of that life. That’s just wrong. And I no longer think it’s enough for the most privileged and the most vulnerable to exist on equal footing.

Guernica: Some people might see your film as a “white savior narrative.” What would you say to that?

Beth Murphy: I believe we all need to be aware of the biases we have. I am aware of mine; I am a white woman who grew up in a middle-class American family with a mom and a dad who were both educators. I can’t make it different—I wouldn’t want to—and I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not.

I do think there need to be more opportunities for people to tell their own stories, and I want to facilitate that. Welcoming and enabling new and different voices and perspectives is what I’m doing at GroundTruth Films, and it’s what we hope to accomplish by engaging and collaborating with filmmakers with widely varied backgrounds and histories and stories to tell. I’ve just begun working with and mentoring our first GroundTruth Film Fellow—an incredibly talented Afghan woman who is teaching me so much about what it means to be on the front lines of fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

How can we walk away after all these years and not have an understanding of the people of Afghanistan?

Guernica: How would you describe the basis of your commitment to the project? What is at the core of it?

Beth Murphy: I love these girls. And I have so much respect for Razia and who she is and what she has accomplished. She looked at the status quo and said, Things have to change.

I’ve never really been satisfied with the status quo, so I love her for that. She reminds me—and I hope others—why it’s important to feel a sense of responsibility for our sisters in the world and how we’re not so different, you and I, whoever you and I might be. To me, this is what building bridges is all about—understanding others and our own places in the world. Especially in Afghanistan, where America has been involved for so long. How can we walk away after all these years and not have an understanding of the people of Afghanistan? It is especially important when it comes to women and girls. It was one of the big selling points of the war there—the idea that we need to liberate women from the evil clutches of the Taliban. When we look back at the war effort, it is easy to be pessimistic and see all the failures. But if there is one shining example of success, it is what has been accomplished around girls’ education. By some estimates, there are more than 2.5 million girls in school today—compared to virtually none under the Taliban. Sure, we can argue about the quality of that education—in the public schools, especially—but the reality is 2.5 million girls are waking up across the country, putting on school uniforms, and heading into the classroom. That’s powerful.

But I still think it’s just the beginning. It’s not a time to claim victory and walk away. We need to appreciate the advances that have been made while making sure those gains are not stripped away. The Zabuli School and its students are good examples of what’s at stake.

Guernica: What about on a personal level? What do you think motivated you?

Beth Murphy: A couple of things. I like to push myself physically and intellectually, but also emotionally. I’m so passionate about this film, the story and the people. Especially the students and teachers who inspire me so much. And Razia—I love her like a mother. The emotional risk has been as frightening, maybe more frightening, than any physical risk I’ve faced when traveling to Afghanistan. But in order to tell the best story, you need to be able to put yourself on the line emotionally, to get to know the people and the story in a really deep way.

The other thing is, a lot of people think Afghanistan is a backward place. How can people not want their daughters in school? What do you mean rural women can’t go to college? How can that be? But when I look back on my own family history, my mother is the first person—male or female—in her family to go to college. And when she did go, she went to an all-girls’ college, a Catholic college. Just like these girls are expected to go somewhere appropriate for Muslim women. My mother became a teacher, and education is one of the programs offered at the Razia Jan Institute. I don’t have to look all that far back to find similarities and parallels.

Guernica: Which films or filmmakers would you say have influenced you the most?

Beth Murphy: I grew up with a slight obsession for CBS News. The CBS Reports documentaries were the first documentaries I watched, and I loved them. They told stories that mattered. Stories that made a difference. And for as long as I can remember, that’s what I wanted to do, too. More recently, I fell in love with Everardo González’s film Drought—the whole film is a metaphor for hope, and watching it was cathartic. It has been almost three years since I’ve seen it, and it still is one of the most powerful two hours of my life. This year, my heart goes to How to Dance in Ohio—it is precious, a real reminder that there is so much good happening in the world. When I think about it, it makes me smile.

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