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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US Embassy Kabul: Eileen O’Connor Moving from Afghanistan to SRAPistan?

We recently posted about the new and sparkling Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio at the US Embassy at the US Embassy in Kabul.  (See Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker “Dedicates” The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio – to Whom?)

Our reliable Baghdad Kabul Nightingale amusingly informed us that the Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio is the only building in the complex that actually says what its purpose is, on the outside.  The Baghdad Kabul Nightingale is not counting “New Office Building” or “Existing Office Building,” aka, “Old Chancery Building,” and convinced that those two buildings were clearly not/not named by someone in public affairs.  Apparently, there are many other buildings in the embassy complex with boring names like DFAC, tower, staff housing, etc, or have state names like Michigan, Florida, etc.  The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio is the only one that says “Broadcast Studio”; it’s the only one (at least for now) that says right on the front and the back exactly what it does.  The Baghdad Kabul Nightingale informs us that the public affairs folks over there clearly knew how to brand.

In a related but not unexpected news, word has it that Eileen O’Connor is leaving post soon, moving to DC and into the Office of the Special Rep for Af/Pak (SRAP); the late Richard Holbrooke’s old office now encumbered by Marc Grossman in Foggy Bottom.

Via US Embassy Kabul/Flickr | Minister of Border and Tribal Affairs Khalid greets Eileen O’Connor, Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy, U.S. Embassy, before the inauguration of the Access English program at Rahman Baba High School in Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday, June 4, 2011. David Ensor is the guy with the red tie.

In any case, in 2010, we had David Ensor (formerly of CNN) over at the US Embassy in Kabul as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy, a newly created title. He had since moved on to VOA in 2011.

He was soon replaced by former CNN/ABC correspondent Eileen O’Connor as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy.  Don’t worry, she’s not leaving government service. If what we’re hearing is true, you will soon rub elbow with Ms. O’Connor at the State Department cafeteria.

So a now vacancy at US Embassy Kabul for a public affairs professional, huh? You can try Wolf Blitzer but you are wasting your time. Or John King who just lost his show, but it is an election year. Who wants to be in Kabul wrestling with the Taliban on Twitter when there is an Obama-Romney face off at the homefront?

We have just the right candidate for you, folks — and she’s somebody familiar, taa-daa! Dr. Liz Colton.

Dr. Colton previously worked as a journalist with firsthand experience abroad. She reported for Asia Week, a Reuters magazine, and was a London-based television producer for both NBC and ABC covering the Middle East and North Africa. She even has an Emmy for two ABC Nightly News pieces on Libya. Later she established Newsweek’s Middle East bureau in Cairo. She covered the Persian Gulf War and was even NPR’s State Department correspondent. And best of all, she is a former Foreign Service officer. One of ours.

Pardon me? Dr. Colton took the State Department to court for age discrimination? Oh heck, that’s like problematic, isn’t it?  Here’s a public affairs professional whose talents they could really use over there, they don’t need six months to get her up to speed, but she took State to court and while in an ongoing legal tussle, she was thrown off the airlock at 66… and …

But…but… DGHR is so full of nice people, surely they did not take that personally.

Domani Spero

Colton v. Clinton Goes to the Court of Appeals …. And Oh, Who Are We Going to See in Kabul Next, Wolf Blitzer?

Last year, the DC District Court Judge Richard J. Leon rejected FSO Elizabeth Colton’s ADEA claims against Secretary of State Clinton and upheld the Foreign Service Act’s mandatory retirement provision.

The Court’s decision included the following which bears repeating here:

“Colton’s allegation that the Secretary of State’s refusal to grant her an extension pursuant to § 4052(b) was a discriminatory act is unavailing. Although the mandatory retirement provision grants the Secretary the discretion to retain a person for up to five years past the mandatory retirement age if in the “public interest,” there is no requirement that the Secretary do so..”

Dr. Colton had rotated out of Karachi in the middle of the district’s great floods and was granted a one-year extension for an assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.   The Legal Times citing court records reported that on Aug. 4, the State Department told Colton via e-mail that her mandatory retirement had been postponed until Sept. 2011 and that she had been approved to serve as the information officer for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The local press reported her arrival in Egypt on September 2010 here.

Dr. Colton was asked to jumped out of the water in Pakistan and was sent to Egypt where she jumped into the fire. Need we mention that she was at post before, during, and after the Egyptian Revolution like all other core embassy employees younger than her?  We know because we continue receiving the embassy press updates all that time.

That extension should run out just about now.   But I understand that the case has now gone to the Court of Appeals where Dr. Colton was granted until November 21, 2011, to file her appellant’s brief.

When she gets thrown out the airlock at 66 when that one-year extension is done, I supposed it just shows that there is no such thing as in the “public interest” when it comes to midlevel public diplomacy professionals even with the State Department’s persistent staffing gaps in that cone, and despite the turmoil in the large swath of the Middle East.

As if to put emphasis on the notion of “public interest,” (or lack thereof), which of course, the Director General of the Foreign Service and the State Department gets to interpret, just when and how that is at play — we are happy to report that David Ensor, formerly of CNN and US Embassy Kabul and now of Voice of America has been replaced by former CNN/ABC correspondent Eileen O’Connor.

Yep, for the same position at the US Embassy in Kabul as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy. See? Routine State Department job titles do not even cut the cake there.

Via the Potomac Flacks: “First reported in Politico’s “Playbook”, Eileen O’Connor has been named the new Communications Director and Director of Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, succeeding David Ensor.  O’Connor is currently Counsel in the law firm McDermott, Will and Emery.  She is a former CNN and ABC foreign correspondent, who over a 24-year career in journalism was based in London, Moscow, Tokyo and in Washington, DC.”

Over a decade ago when the State Department’s own State Magazine picked Dr. Colton as an interesting specimen among FSO newbies, the magazine writes:

Ms. Colton also worked as a journalist with firsthand experience abroad. She reported for Asia Week, a Reuters magazine, and was a London-based television producer for both NBC and ABC covering the Middle East and North Africa. In 1981, she won an Emmy for two ABC Nightly News pieces on Libya. Later she established Newsweek’s Middle East bureau in Cairo. The Waterford, Va., resident’s coverage of the Persian Gulf War prompted National Public Radio to offer her a job as its State Department correspondent.

Remember that group of Iraqi soldiers who surrendered to a journalist? You guessed it.

They gave up to NBC radio correspondent Liz Colton.

Read more about her in  Colton v. Clinton: Expeditionary Diplomat Booted Off Career Ladder, Too Old

Any how — we are supposed to understand that there is no “public interest” in the extension of this career diplomat’s tenure past the mandatory retirement age, no matter how excellent her service in the field of public diplomacy because she is too old?  Like I said before but let me say it again — that super sucks!

No matter that she is serving in one of the top deficit cones in the Foreign Service? Ditto.

No matter that she is serving in the midlevel ranks where there occur the most staffing gaps? Ditto.

Should we, therefore, conclude that while there is no/no “public interest” for the State Department to extend its “oldies but goldies” employees who clearly have the chops, the hiring of sorta big name journalists for its big time public affairs shop in the war zone is/is in the country’s “public interest?”

Like there isn’t anyone in all of the State Department’s career corps  qualified to run the US Embassy Kabul’s press shop? What have they done to all the qualified career professionals in public affairs, throw them all out the airlock because they’ve turn 65?

I’m curious just how much taxpayer money goes to this kind of “public interest.”

And who, pray tell are we going to see in Kabul next, Wolf Blitzer? Presumably, Ms. O’Connor will have a one-year tour at the US Embassy Kabul. So for 2012-2013, can we please, please vote who we should have there next?