Buzkashi Boys: When U.S. Taxpayers Almost Won an Oscar (Or Smartifying Capacity Building)

The film was nominated for an Oscar in the Short Film (Live Action) category but lost to Curfew.  A couple says ago, the State Department announced a big do in WashDC, a Panel With Stars and Producer of Oscar-Nominated Afghan Short Film “Buzkashi Boys.”

The U.S. Department of State will host a screening and roundtable discussion with the producer and stars of the Oscar-nominated short film Buzkashi Boys on February 28 at 12:30 p.m. in the Marshall Center Auditorium.

The making of Buzkashi Boys was supported through a grant from U.S. Embassy Kabul to the Afghan Film Project. The goal of this project is to help revitalize the Afghan film industry, which was once a vibrant part of Afghanistan’s cultural life.

During the filming of Buzkashi Boys thirteen Afghan interns were trained in all aspects of film production. Afghan media organizations, which until recently were forced to rely on foreign expertise, will benefit from this training for years to come. Almost all of the trainees continue to work in the local media or television industry. Some are making their own films, strengthening national identity by telling their own stories.

Here are some photos of the stars of Buzkashi Boys during their visit to Foggy Bottom for a screening and Q and A on February 28, 2013.

The stars and producer of the Oscar-nominated film Buzkashi Boys visit the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., for a screening and Q and A on February 28, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

The stars and producer of the Oscar-nominated film Buzkashi Boys visit the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., for a screening and Q and A on February 28, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain] (click image to view a slideshow)

What was not included in the announcement is the 29-minute film’s unusual distinction.  According to the WSJ, the film was “funded almost entirely out of a $150 million State Department campaign to combat extremism, support Afghan media and burnish the U.S. image in Afghanistan.”

As part of the public-diplomacy project, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul gave Mr. French and his Afghan Film Project more than $220,000 in 2010 to make “Buzkashi Boys” and use the production to train aspiring Afghan filmmakers.

Tara Sonenshine who currently serves as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs for State recently blogged about the BB in DipNote touting this as one of the “innovative examples of our many public diplomacy programs in support of a peaceful, prosperous, stable Afghanistan”:

In the case of “Buzkashi Boys,” we supported the Afghan Film Project — the non-profit NGO whose creation was integral to the movie. A grant from the State Department funded the training of 13 Afghan interns in all aspects of film production. Those graduates are now among the best-trained filmmakers in Afghanistan. Most of them have gone on to work in the local media or television industry, or have begun to make their own films.

While the movie didn’t win an Oscar, it sent out powerful messages about a future we can all support: an Afghanistan where ethnic and linguistic divisions can be transcended through a common love of culture, where aspirations are possible, and where the playing fields are level for everyone. On the economic side, it showed foreign movie and television investors and artists that Afghanistan is open for business and growing its people’s capacity to become a vibrant center of national self expression.

Okay, now that you’ve read that, let’s take a look at this item from El Snarkistani of the Republic of Snarkistan, who probably won’t get any invite to embassy events anytime soon:

So to review:

– US government funded film
– Filmed in Afghanistan
– Afghan streetkid star

– Total funding: around $260,000

I say again: that’s a pretty big shoestring.

By way of comparison, remember Clerks? That cost $27,000. And the first Paranormal Activity? $15,000. So why was it so expensive to make this film in a country where median monthly incomes are a few hundred dollars? Your main star’s a street kid who sells maps and “bodyguard services” to foreigners on Kabul’s Chicken Street, so I’m guessing he wasn’t that expensive. Must have been all that capacity building.

Which is what’s missing from the narrative surrounding this film: at no point are we hearing how that money went to help the Afghan film industry. In fact, in a story for the National, Lianne Gutcher reports that French and his team made choices that would virtually ensure that whatever skills were learned would not translate to the Afghan film scene once the movie was completed.

French also insisted on shooting with RED cinema cameras – an American brand that is expensive to hire and insure. That offered little benefit to Afghan filmmakers, who cannot afford RED. Afghanistan’s film and TV industry mainly uses MiniDV, a far lower standard.

Completely absent from the photos taken of the cast and crew by the media during this Oscar season are the filmcrew that French and his team were supposed to train in the first place. Any publicity photos feature French (prominently, and why not, with those eyes, that hair, and that beard?) and the two co-stars, but noticeably absent are any other Afghans. Based on how much the US Embassy in Kabul has been falling all over itself on social media to promote this thing, one would think that the goal of telling the “good news” about Afghanistan has been achieved. With…buzkashi.

[…]

No, what you need is a story that’s going to make foreigners feel good about Afghanistan. And if, along the way, you hire an Afghan as your “Assistant Chef,” well, that’s all to the good, isn’t it?

Make no mistake: this film isn’t directed at Afghans. I don’t think it’s even been screened for an Afghan audience at this point, as the only publicity here in Afghanistan around the film has focused on showings at foreign embassies. When the Soviets used to do this, we called it propaganda. Since it’s the 21st century, and we’re Americans, somehow this is…capacity building. Or, as David Ensor, who headed up the US public diplomacy effort in Kabul at the time, told the Wall Street Journal, 

“I was in the hope business, and we were making investments in Afghanistan and its people that were designed to make life better and create a perception of change in the right direction,” he said.

“Create a perception of change”? Perish the thought that we’d create any actual change. Whether you’re calling it public diplomacy, public affairs, information operations, or propaganda, it all boils down to the same thing: creating the perception that things are going to be just fine. What’s troubling is that telling the real stories of average Afghans would do just that. For a quarter of a million dollars, you could find a whole lot of Afghans whose lives have been directly and positively changed by the US presence here.

Coming from me that may be a surprising statement, but it hasn’t all been bad here. The problem is that the Department of State and other government organizations here are so focused on making sure everyone knows that the billions they’re dumping here is doing some good, that they forget that it’s really not that complicated, after all. Instead of making a film about how American dollars have made real change in the lives of actual Afghans, the State Department would rather dump even more money into things that “create a perception of change.”

So we funded a film that’s disconnected by and large from the country in which it’s filmed. We didn’t really build the capacity of the Afghan film industry, unless you count beefing up the resume of an American director and his non-Afghan crew. And we just cross our fingers and hope that somehow people think we’re doing some good here. Marvelous.

Read in full here: Buzkashi Boys: When Propaganda Becomes Capacity Building.

Photo via US Embassy Kabul/FB

Buzkashi Boys actors under the Great Seal at the US Embassy Kabul with Ambassador James Cunningham.
Photo via US Embassy Kabul/FB (click on image for a slideshow)

On a related note, we saw this tweet from US Embassy Kabul and we could not walk away:

U.S. Embassy Kabul ‏@USEmbassyKabul

In the 1940s, the Office of War Information & @StateDept worked w/Hollywood to produce films to aid the war effort.

@USEmbassyKabul @StateDept Which ones?

U.S. Embassy Kabul ‏@USEmbassyKabul

@diplopundit One infamous film that comes to mind is ‘Mission to Moscow’ (1943). The War Dept during WWII had a number of others.

Which led us to dig up ‘Mission to Moscow’, a film directed by Michael Curtiz in 1943 based on a book by former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies.  According to Wikipedia, this film has also been called  “unquestionably the most blatant piece of pro-Stalinist propaganda ever offered by the American mass media”.

Oh, dear!

Once you start digging into the Office of War Information (OWI), it’s almost impossible to stop – there’s an ‘um, richness of material there just so hard to ignore. Several OWI-connected films got nominated for Academy Awards and one even starred an actor who later became a U.S. president:

Some other USG-connected movies received nominations and won some awards:

A longer list of Allied propaganda films for World War II is available here.

About the OWI:

“The Office of War Information (OWI) was a U.S. government agency created during World War II to consolidate government information services.   […] In 1943, the OWI’s appropriations were cut out of the fiscal year 1944 budget and only restored with strict restrictions on what OWI could do domestically. Many branch offices were closed and the Motion Picture Bureau was closed down. By 1944 the OWI operated mostly in the foreign field, contributing to undermining enemy morale. The agency was abolished in 1945, and its foreign functions were transferred to the Department of State.  The OWI was terminated, effective September 15, 1945, by an executive order of August 31, 1945.”

Perhaps the most instructive item we found rummaging around is from Elmer Davis, the director of OWI in 1942 who said: “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized.”

There. Got that?

Now given all that history with Hollywood, should we really call this ‘innovative?”  In the meantime, since the stated goal of the Buzkashi Boys project is “to help revitalize the Afghan film industry,” we asked over in the Twitters the following question:

@USEmbassyKabul @TOLO_TV Curious – how many of the 13 AFG interns fm BB are currently wrking in AFG film industry?

That’s not really an unreasonable question to ask, is it?
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Ambassador Prudence Bushnell: At the NPC on Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Via the NPC:

Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, CEO of consulting firm Sage Associates, will address embassy security in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi at a Newsmaker press conference at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 5 in the Zenger Room.

The attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens shined a harsh spotlight on whether the State Department had taken sufficient steps to keep its diplomats safe and how such threats are assessed.

Bushnell, chief of mission in Nairobi, Kenya in 1998, when Al Qaeda members, under orders from Osama bin Laden, exploded a massive truck bomb outside the U.S. Embassy there. The blast killed 213 people, including 44 U.S. government employees.

Bushnell has also served as U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala and dean of the Leadership School at the Foreign Service Institute.

The Zenger Room is located the 13th Floor of the National Press Building, 529 14th St., NW, Washington, D.C. For more information, contact Anthony E. Gallo at 202-544-6973 or by email at agallo2368@verizon.net.

Should be interesting to hear her take particularly on a COM request that does not get a hearing on the Seventh Floor, something familiar to the ambassador who wrote to a Secretary of State, and never got a response.  We have blogged about Ambassador Bushnell’s entry in the Oral History (see Rice Conspiracy: “Cover-Up” Now Extends to the 1998 East Africa Bombings? Why Not Just Add the Fake Moon Landing, too?).

— DS

 

 

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