Monadnock Film Festival culminates with Daniels Award documentary

By Ethan DeWitt Sentinel Staff
April 24, 2017

In Deh’Subz, a remote village in Afghanistan’s Kabul province, meaningful change can seem a rarity.

Literacy rates have long been near the lowest in the world. Many of the village’s families today subsist on $7 a week, with few opportunities to climb their way out. Conservative customs hold sway over families and laws; teenage girls are often married away out of financial necessity.

So when an Afghani-American, Razia Jan, arrived at the village in 2008 to build a free, private school for girls, the idea was more than a little radical. Nine years later, the school’s success — and its transformative effect on the village’s culture — has made quiet strides to brighten a troubled country’s future.

On Saturday, a glimpse at that future came to Keene. A documentary tracing Jan’s efforts, “What Tomorrow Brings,” played at The Colonial Theatre for the Monadnock International Film Festival’s final — and pivotal — night. Following the screening, the film’s director, Beth Murphy, took home the Jonathan Daniels Award, the festival’s honor for a director whose work “shines a light on social responsibility and celebrates selfless acts.”

Throughout its 90-minute run-time, Murphy’s film justified the prize. The documentary, which takes a matter-of-fact, fly-on-the-wall approach to its subject matter, is nonetheless a force of hope.

Viewers follow a pair of girls attending the school, their family circumstances, their hopes for a better life through education, and the patriarchal obstacles standing in the way.

Pashtana is a spirited 15-year-old, the spark of every classroom, who sees education as the only way to escape a life of poverty and a forced marriage to her cousin. She’ll do anything to keep attending the school she loves and seeing the teachers and friends she admires — even at one point swallowing rat poison in an attempt to defy her family’s opposition.

“My biggest hope is to finish school,” she says to the camera. “That’s how my life will turn a corner.”

Rihala, meanwhile, is the oldest of the new students, at 18. The daughter of the village mayor, she hopes to gain literacy and ascend to a new social class, throwing off a forced engagement to a man three times her age.

Steadily and calmly, the film reveals the trajectory of the girls’ stories, introducing the students, teachers and family members in Deh’Subz that guide their circumstances.

The setting is ever present. Wide shots of dusty streets and distant mountains are interspersed among scenes inside at desks and classrooms. Stark images of poverty and beauty appear alternately, sometimes simultaneously — the visual marks of a country striving to move past its violent scars.

The film is permeated with grim reminders of the dangers still presented by Taliban forces. As some of the students ride a van to the school, a radio broadcast tells of dozens of girls poisoned at a different school. Through poems to their peers, the students speak candidly of death and fear.

But against the often-bleak backdrop, the film brims with hope. Jan, the Afghani-born woman at the heart of the effort, proves a formidable source of positivity within the village. It was Jan who convinced the village elders to allow the school in the first place, speaking of the economic opportunity it would bring and pushing back against the notion it should be for boys instead. It’s Jan who every morning goes to the school well and takes the first drink, so only one has to suffer the consequences of potential poison.

And it’s Jan who stands tall against critics in the village who say the school is inviting Taliban attacks while speaking tearfully into the camera of the pride she has in her students.

As the storylines develop, the connections between audience and subject strengthen, and the emotional conclusions near the end strike home.

At a Q&A session after the screening with N.H. Public Radio host Virginia Prescott, Murphy said the film, which took six years to produce, was a logistical challenge. Murphy, a former print journalist who has since produced more than 20 documentaries — including the acclaimed post-9/11 film “Beyond Belief” — described the caution she and her crew took to keep a low profile and respect the culture they sought to explore.

But she said the story was too powerful to ignore. Before the school’s construction, men in the village would rarely look in a woman’s eye when she spoke; after years of negotiation with the indomitable Jan, village elders are more used to the idea of women wielding power. Where once fathers were loath to send their daughters to school at all, village families are suddenly sending their recently graduated youth off to college in Kabul.

Beyond its cultural impact, the school’s presence has proven an economic boon to Deh’Subz too, Murphy said, a result that she says helped the village accept it faster. That, Murphy says, has strengthened her own optimism.

“(It’s) been very exciting,” Murphy said, summarizing the school’s effect. “(It just) reinforced to me why hope is such a powerful thing, and why it’s so reasonable to have it.”

Posted in Awards, Festival News