View from a Grain of Sand begins with the refugee camps on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. It does not end there — at least, not for all the women documented in this moving, incisive documentary. Nanji films the everyday lives of three women — a teacher, a doctor, and a RAWA activist — and uses their stories to situate this present political and historical moment in a larger context. This situating reveals the shared history lying between the US, these camps, and Afghanistan, and implies that the rise of the Taliban was a culmination of many historical factors involving the Cold War and neo-colonialism.
The women interviewed have a passionate commitment to Afghani women. Each describes the work she does as a component of a larger social justice mission. This is particularly apparent in the case of Wajeeha, who works with RAWA in the camps. She helps RAWA to distribute basic necessities to the women attending literacy classes in the refugee camps. Further, Wajeeha, Shapiray, and Dr. Roeena’s stories mark the humongous evolution in women’s rights in Afghanistan, and the vast differences in the way these rights were interpreted based on location. Roeena grew up in the city; her parents encouraged her educational ambitions, and were specifically targeted when conservative forces came into power. Wajeeha, on the other hand, grew up in a more rural region of Afghanistan. She was illiterate, and after her husband died fighting against the Soviets, RAWA rescued her and her sons. RAWA helped her to learn to read, as well as providing her with material assistance.
This indie introduction to Afghanistan did more to humanize its people (particularly its women) than some larger projects like Charlie Wilson’s War. While films like that served to illustrate US complicity in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, films like this serve to complicate the “poor brown folks” projects like that often promote. I had no idea of the history of RAWA, and was deeply touched by the everyday heroism their members demonstrated. Some of the human rights violations featured in this film were documented by women hiding cameras underneath their burkas. When you learn about stuff like that, it kinda makes sense that RAWA is asking for donated cameras.
At the film’s end, Wajeeha and Roeena have decide to remain expatriates in order to continue serving the needs of those still in the refugee camps on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Shapiray and her family move back to Afghanistan to teach girls. The documentary ends on a somber note — while only two of Nanji’s subjects remain in the camps, the homeland in which Shapiray finds herself is ultimately not much different than the ramshackle camps she’s left. There’s something grimly determined, and ambivalent, about this ending, one that acknowledges that the warlords who came to power after the “US intervention” are still powerful, even as the women of RAWA, the doctors of the International Medical Corps, and girls’ teachers struggle to change the status quo for women in Afghanistan.