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TV Review: 'A Woman Among Warlords'

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A Woman Finds Her Place in the Afghan Power Struggle

By MIKE HALE, The New York Times, September 11, 2007

Documentry film on Malalai Joya
"A revelatory portrait of this extraordinary freedom fighter and the way she won the hearts of voters... " Caroline Libresco Sundance Film Festival

"A Woman Among Warlords," which follows the Afghan politician Malalai Joya through the final months of campaigning for her country’s National Assembly in 2005, can’t help but be enthralling: at a time when television seems happy to fill its schedules profiling fishermen and unemployed actors, Ms. Joya is a truly remarkable subject.

If there’s a problem with the documentary, which is being shown tonight as the season finale of "Wide Angle" on PBS, it’s the rare one of too much showing and not enough telling.

The almost entirely observational approach of the filmmakers Eva Mulvad and Anja Al-Erhayem produces amazing scenes: an impossibly old woman who has walked for hours to meet Ms. Joya suddenly drops to the floor and pulls herself across it with her forearms, demonstrating how she planted mines under Russian tanks. On election night Ms. Joya’s ever-present armed guards listen to the results, and the flickers of hope and pride on their usually blank faces are a revelation.

In one of the film’s most gripping passages a 13-year-old girl begs Ms. Joya to help her avoid a forced marriage to an older man, who feels he’s entitled to her because he had already given her family a dowry when his daughter married one of the girl’s brothers. The girl delivers an impassioned monologue that ends: "I’m in the fifth grade. He wants me to keep the accounts for his opium money. He has weapons and walks with a limp. He’s crippled in one hand and one leg. I can’t find happiness with him."

As dramatic as all of this is — and as strange and upsetting, to a first-world audience — Ms. Joya moves through it as a bit of a cipher, because we’re told so little about her life. We’re shown the moment, two years before the action in the film takes place, when she sprang to fame at the age of 25 by standing before a tribal assembly and condemning the country’s mujahedeen warlords; we’re told that the BBC has called her the most famous woman in Afghanistan.

But while her commitment to change and her seemingly limitless courage are obvious, we can only guess at how they were formed and how they are maintained. What was the influence of her father, who fought the Russians? Was she radicalized as a child living in exile? How does she continue after four assassination attempts? None of these facts of her life are even referred to in the film.

What we end up focusing on — and it is a more than rich enough subject — is Ms. Joya as a self-taught and gifted politician persevering in a situation whose difficulties are hard for us to imagine. And there are interesting hints that she isn’t the nicest campaigner on the block. After she lectures a raucous meeting of local candidates about how their arguing is getting them nowhere, one man grumbles that it’s all very well for her to talk when her bodyguards are intimidating other candidates and tearing down posters.

The film, which won a grand jury prize at Sundance this year under its original title, "Enemies of Happiness" (the version being shown on "Wide Angle" has been adapted for PBS), includes a postscript noting that Ms. Joya was suspended from the National Assembly in May for criticizing other members. It’s simultaneously a bummer and a relief: we’ve been prepared for her fate to be so much worse.

Stephen Segaller, executive producer; Pamela Hogan, series producer; Andy Halper, senior producer. Adapted from a documentary film by Eva Mulvad and Anja Al-Erhayem. A production of WNET, New York, for PBS.