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Inside Zohra, Afghanistan's First All-Female Orchestra
Nilgin Yusuf , August 28th, 2021 12:11

Musician turned filmmaker Dan Blackwell shines a light on Zohra, Afghanistan's first female-led orchestra, in new film Sisters. Nilgin Yusuf meets the director

“Music is a refuge” believes Dan Blackwell, musician and director of Sisters, a documentary about Zohra, Afghanistan’s first female orchestra. Filmed in 2017, Sisters had its UK premiere at the Chichester Film Festival this month on the day the Taliban seized Kabul. What started as a musical collaboration between Blackwell and Zohra at Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music became a full-length documentary. In a culture where the concept of women playing music is considered socially unacceptable and is now haram or forbidden according to Sharia law, Zohra remain a symbol of hope, unity and courage.

Even at the time of the film’s making, several of the musicians had experienced hostility or their families had been subject to death threats by the Taliban. Now this Islamist religious-political movement are in charge again, music has been banned outright and the airwaves silenced. Although the Institute has been closed and many more educational establishments destroyed, Sisters remains: a moving tribute to the bravery and resistance of women, the resilience of the human spirit and the unifying power of music.

The Quietus: How did you come to hear about Zohra?

Dan Blackwell: I saw a video online and was blown away by their story. I had no idea about the situation in Afghanistan, the history of music being illegal, the problems they went through. I couldn’t believe these girls and women were risking their lives to pursue music and how passionate they felt about it.

The film was made several years before the Taliban took over. Did Kabul feel dangerous at the time?

Afghanistan was in a very precarious situation, not as bad as now but in 2017, it was declared a Red Zone, so not safe to travel. When I messaged the British Embassy to explain I was going, they told me they had no obligation to help me if I was kidnapped by the Taliban, which happens all the time. In the week I was in Kabul, four bombs went off in the city.

Were you afraid?

I had to set up lots of time-lapse cameras on the roof of the safe house to film the sun going down and capture the landscape. Everybody else I saw on the roof has an assault rifle. You feel a bit vulnerable walking around with a small device that has a red flashing light, tying it to some part of the roof with a piece of electrical tape – it’s not the best look!

Within the school I didn’t feel in danger because it was walled off and protected, but outside, I’d organised my own private security, a driver and armoured vehicle. He would plan and check the safest routes. I mainly stayed in my safe house a lot, and every journalist there told me to restrict my movements because every time you go out you increase your chances of being involved in some kind of attack, either happening around or to you. You don’t know if you’re being targeted. You don’t know if people are looking for you.

What was your most hair-raising moment?

I ordered a pizza, as you can actually order pizza in Kabul. One of the guards at the safe house said to me, “They want you to go down the alley and pick it up.” I thought, “Oh no” and refused. I said, “You can out there and pick it up - with your guns and bullet proof vest but I’m not going by myself.” So, he went down and came back with the pizza, safe and sound. It was probably just a usual pedestrian situation but I couldn’t be sure. It was nerve-wracking. The pizza wasn’t the best. It had coriander on it.

As a filmmaker, this was your first documentary and you were a team of one. How challenging was that technically?

I was alone. I had a suitcase of borrowed cameras and microphones. The way I attacked it was to visualise everything and fall through the motions repeatedly. I made sure everything was captured from every angle, to give the illusion of a team and multiple cameras. With the magic of film, you can’t tell I’ve stopped the conversation, moved the camera to get a different angle, then resumed the conversation. It was quite an undertaking to record a whole orchestra with two microphones, I had to keep on recording, then moving them around.

It sounds stressful on many levels. How was the experience overall?

I was running on adrenaline the whole time and had lightning going through my veins. I couldn’t sleep. My brain was going constantly. I worked every second of the day and all night but there was such an instant connection with everyone at the school. They were so kind and warm. I knew I was making friends for life. They were very special people.

As a new filmmaker, what did you learn about the process?

The cameras kept overheating and turning off so it was difficult to capture everything happening in the moment, but I’d always have a GoPro taped to the wall and my phone would be recording somewhere, to get as much footage as possible.

My thinking was that if I could film everything from every angle, always have a lapel mic on myself and those I interviewed, I’d have what I needed. This ended up as between 60 – 90 hours of material. With Covid and the global pandemic, myself and my producer, Tony Klinger, were able to edit at leisure across continents.

As the pursuit of music was frowned upon, did you find that the girls and women in Zohra ascribed greater value to it? What did music mean to them?

It was about the freedom to express themselves. They knew how valuable and sacred it was to have this connection with your instrument, so you can create art with your fingers or voice or body. Music gave a great sense of purpose. They were all passionate about their instruments and would practice as much as they could outside of study hours to improve and better themselves. In the UK, it’s like, “Do I have to learn guitar?’

What were the broader attitudes towards women playing music?

Although the country wasn’t controlled by the Taliban at that stage, an older generation of Afghans who had grown up under their rule had embodied their values. The idea of a woman playing music is on par with a woman dancing on a table, taking her clothes off. That’s how it used to be, women would perform and men would bid for them – so singing, music and performance were used as a form of prostitution. It was still largely regarded as obscene for a girl to be playing music, even classical music, which is difficult to understand.

Negin Khpalwak, the 20-year-old conductor, was quite stoic and worldly about the position of women in Afghanistan. She felt it wasn't a uniquely Afghanistan problem, but that patriarchy was a global issue.

When I asked her about female oppression, she said, “It’s not just in Afghanistan, it’s all over the world to varying degrees.” And she’s right. It’s important to show how bad it is in some places and it needs to get better everywhere. I don’t know who couldn’t relate to these women not wanting to live in servitude, wishing to be seen as people.

How did going to Afghanistan change your understanding of music?

I knew music was powerful, but I saw how music was essentially saving these women from a lifetime of being in the kitchen. They decided, “No, I’ll play and perform music.” When I was younger and being bullied at school, music was a personal refuge but in this far more extreme situation, music is also a refuge, whether listening to or playing it.

Will there be a sequel to Sisters, given the recent upheavals in Afghanistan?

I’d be interested in a follow-up where I would bring the women together online to create a new piece of music, and interview them about their lives since the film. Lots of them are now all over the world in different countries. Zarifa Adiba, the viola player, is at university in another country. She is safe.

What is the situation now for Afghanistan’s music community?

The younger girls in the film are locking down and not leaving their own homes. I’ve heard of people being hunted, academics being tracked down. I’ve seen images of destroyed instruments already. That’s what happened last time the Taliban took over. They made all instruments illegal, even cassette players, anything that could play music on would be destroyed and you would be imprisoned if you were caught playing music. Right now, it’s happening quietly and sporadically, but over the next few months we’ll see it happening on a louder, more visible scale.

What did the making of Sisters teach you about your life?

It showed me the way to cope with dark times is to not give in to them. I saw these women were not giving in to the darkness. They were staying light and positive and joking and not losing that. I thought that was really beautiful.

Sisters the documentary will be distributed on major digital platforms in September 2021 alongside Sisters the musical composition created by Dan Blackwell and music producer Tom Biggs