Reviews, Views and Adventures in Content Creation

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Minute You Pull Out a Camera, You're Intervening

(You can read my original review of The Boy Mir here)

I recently had the opportunity to interview Phil Grabsky, director of The Boy Mir: Ten Years in Afghanistan," a new feature documentary that offers an unusually intimate portrait of a young boy growing up in the remote reaches of Afghanistan over the last decade. From eight to about eighteen, we watch Mir's life unfold with his family, as they struggle to survive, distant but impacted by the battle's for Afghanistan's future. This is actually Grabsky's second feature film about Mir. The award-winning "The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan" (2004), followed Mir and his family during a single year as they struggled to survive in the aftermath of Taliban rule, living in the shadow of what had been the tallest sculptures in the world - the Buddhas of Bamiyan - which the Taliban had destroyed to international outrage in 2001.

 Photo used by permission
A large part of the appeal of both films is Mir himself - an intelligent, charismatic boy facing daily hardships that force him to often interrupt his schooling to work in the fields to help sustain his family. As he grows into a teenager, his hopes dreams, humor - and even his material wishes (a bike, a motorcycle, a cell phone) will seem familiar to kids and adults the world over.

Grabsky, based in Brighton, U.K., remembers the very event that triggered both Mir films. On July 2nd, 2002, a U.S. aircraft accidentally fired on an Afghan wedding, perhaps reacting to perceving celebratory gunfire as a threat. The attack killed and wounded dozens - and haunted Grabsky, "I thought to myself, alright, step back from that. Imagine your own wedding day, my wedding day, out of the blue sky - they don't even see this plane - out of the blue sky, one minute everyone's dancing and happy, and the next minute people are literally in bits."

"I thought, who are the Afghans? They can't all be terrorists, they can't all be mute women behind burkhas. And I was just interested, and I thought I'lll just go and find out myself."

Though well traveled, Grabsky had never been to Afghanistan and didn't speak the language - yet he wanted to tell a personal story. A filmmaker with over twenty-five years of experience, he began with a guiding principle.

"I think as a filmmaker," he explains, "there comes a point when you do everything you can to get into a position where you're engineering yourself to be lucky."

In an unfamiliar - and sometimes dangerous place like Afghanistan, his first task was to find a local fixer, "but they're more than that - they're journalists, they're security advisors - your Afghan right hand man. That's absolutely key, and that was an important entrée into society. He was the one that talked to everybody. He was the one who put my questions in a way that they would understand and respond to. He organized my food, my security and my transport."

Grabsky's greatest responsibility, then - and something he feels many documentary filmmakers often "get wrong" - was to show respect. "You are not a big deal. You mustn't think that because you have the camera and you're from England, you're from the West - somehow these are "little people" and they should be grateful that you turned up. " Grabsky's subjects had been through war - they had lost relatives, and seen others tortured. They lived traumatized lives. He found that most adults by that time were exhausted and depressed - but their children - like most children - still had hope.

Still, the challenge of creating an honest film required establishing a level of trust with his subjects - and a recognition of Grabsky's own impact on his surroundings. "I think that the minute you pull out a camera you are intervening, and actually it's much more realistic to think to yourself, 'How do I manage the intervention?'"

As a camera at a demonstration might encourage some to say or do something they wouldn't do otherwise, Grabsky was acutely aware of his own intervention in Mir's life. Much of his time with the family wasn't spent filming, but talking with Mir, his family and others - building trust and getting to know his subjects - off camera.

It helped that Grabsky's crew was small - generally only himself and his Afghan colleague - and a small, unimposing camera (beginning with Sony's legendary PD-150), a couple of radio microphones, and an on-board directional microphone. There were times when his colleague, who also developed a high level of trust with the family, would shoot in situations where Grabsky's presence wasn't possible or preferable. As a result, The Boy Mir includes rare insights into the relationship between MIr's parents and Afghan family dynamics, and fascinating glimpses into common misconceptions of the western world.

Perhaps Phil Grabksy's most important consideration was Mir himself. Intervening in an adult's life was one thing - intervening in a child's life was an even greater consideration.
Early in the project, at the close of his second trip to Afghanistan, Grabsky asked Mir if there was anything he would like to have. Mir responded, "A cuddly toy." Only then did Grabsky realize that MIr had never had a cuddly toy. During the rule of the Taliban, human and animal representations of any kind - even children's toys - were banned. Returning home to England, Grabsky shared the story with his young daughter, who had a menagerie of cuddly toys. She chose one in particular - an Applalachian brown bear (an artifact of another Grabsky film about Dolly Parton's "Dollywood" theme park). When Grabsky returned to Afghanistan, he brought the cuddly toy to Mir, and "he was overjoyed when I gave it to him, to the extent that I had to say, you know what, you've got to hide that," to preserve the perceived authenticity of the film, "but he couldn't, because he loved it so much."

The greatest appeal of The Boy Mir is the director's clear respect for his subject - and it's a respect that extends far beyond the on-camera portrait and gifts of toys and clothes. It continues to this day.

After conferring with colleagues and Afghan aid experts, Grabsky decided to provide modest compensation for the family throughout the filming. While there are some documentarians might consider the practice unethical - and might consider it disruptive, Grabsky believed that "ultimately, it was the right thing to do."

He decided to provide compensation equal to three months wages, but carefully avoided a level of compensation that could encourage dependency. He also showed respect to those in Mir's village - providing funding to fix the roof of Mir's school, for example - but making it clear it was at the request of the family - and not his own decision.

Grabsky also created a trust fund for Mir, contributing to it through the years as he children's own account. As an adult, Mir will soon have access to some of the funds - which could allow him to rise out of the abject poverty of his youth to further his education if he wishes, or even go into business for himself (For more information on Mir's fund and the film, check out

Though the culture and situation may be alien to most westerners, coming of age and family themes are universal. Audiences connect with Mir, perhaps, because they see themselves.

The Boy Mir: Ten Years in Afghanistan, though, is about a real person - his fate now forever altered by a filmmaker who told his story - and respected his life.

[This article was first published here at]


  1. Every journalist or documentarian (etc) risks controlling the story rather than covering it, especially when it's told over such a long period of time. Being aware of the pitfalls, and managing it successfully, are truly a talent on their own, apart from the telling of the story. Very interesting blog post!

  2. Thank you - I think that Grabsky and his film is a valuable lesson in ethical documentary filmmaking.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post and found good information here.You can now achieve any dolly shot your mind can create, without the high studio price tag!

    Jib camera crane