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?
sig4

Advertisements

US Mission Afghanistan: USAID Sub-Contractors Killed in Kabul Suicide Attack

WaPo reports that today’s attack in Kabul was carried out by a suicide bomber who rammed a car packed with explosives into a mini-bus carrying foreign aviation workers to the Kabul International Airport.  At least 12 people died, including eight South Africans, three Afghans and a citizen of Kyrgyzstan. The report says the Afghan militant group, Hizb-i-Islami, claimed responsibility for the dawn attack and said it was carried out by a 22-year-old woman named Fatima. It also adds that suicide bombings carried out by women are extremely rare in Afghanistan, where few if any Afghan women drive cars.

Worst Take-Your-Kid-to-Work-Day ever
Photo and Caption via It’s Always Sunny in Kabul

VOA quotes Nelson Kgwete, a spokesman for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation:

“We understand from our mission in Islamabad that the eight South Africans were employed by a private aviation company,” said Kgwete. “At the moment the department has the complete list of all the names of the deceased. We are working on establishing contact with the next of kin and also ensuring that we ensure the necessary consular assistance to the families.”

A separate WaPo report says that many of the victims were contract personnel with Air Charter Service, a British-based company that provides services to the U.S. Agency for International Development and other organizations in Afghanistan.  The company’s website did not list its clients but the charter service reportedly has a contract with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to ferry USAID officials around Afghanistan.

These are deaths that will not even be counted when our war casualties are tallied. We may never even know their names. They are not Coalition soldiers or American civilians, they are foreigners in Afghanistan, third country nationals who work as contractors to a USAID contractor that is British-based.

The US Embassy in Kabul released the following condemnation statement:

Condemnation of Suicide Attack in Kabul
September 18, 2012

The U.S. Embassy condemns, in the strongest terms, the suicide bombing that took place this morning near Kabul International airport, killing at least 10 people and injuring several others, including members of the Afghan National Police. Many of the victims were contracted personnel of a private company providing services to USAID and other organizations in Afghanistan. We offer our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of all of the victims, and we wish for a full recovery to the injured.

 

The embassy didn’t know how many of them provided services for USAID, only that many of them did. I don’t know why I find that distressful.  For 2012 alone, the US Embassy in Kabul has already issued 25 condemnation statements, an average of two a month and it’s just September.

Our blog pal, El Snarkistani in It’s Always Sunny in Kabul lists 5 reasons why this latest suicide attack is a big deal, and in his words, “frighteningly different from the norm here in the Emerald City”:

[T]o review: a) actions by the insurgency are dramatically altering ISAF strategy, b) the insurgents are able to kill foreign civilians in the capital, and c) they’re able to destroy ISAF’s most valuable asset, its airpower.

Thus, if negotiations do occur anytime soon, it’s because the insurgency brought the bigger stick. And if there’s an olive branch involved, they probably impaled the dove on it. Think more Brando’s Don, less Kingsley’s Gandhi.

If this is a weakened insurgency, I’d hate to see what a strong one would look like.

Read his full post here.

El Snarkistani: 5 Things You Should Know About Dead Kids in Kabul

El Snarkistani of It’s Always Sunny in Kabul was gone for a couple of weeks of R&R.  We miss him when he’s gone and we’re always happy to see him return to his blog. But then he blogs about the 5 Things You Should Know About Dead Kids in Kabul which makes us throw shoes at the dark, surly skies.

Because it’s Massoud Day, or because it’s a Saturday, or because the CIA is here, or because the State Department just declared the Haqqani network a Foreign Terrorist Organization, the Taliban/ISI/Haqqani convinced a street kid to fill a backpack with explosives and detonate it near the front entrance to ISAF headquarters here in Kabul.

I, like most people who have worked with ISAF/the Embassy/the Afghan government in that part of Kabul have walked that stretch of road a lot. We know the kids that hang out there, sometimes by name, mostly by whatever trinkets they’re trying to sell this week.

As tragic as today’s events were, and believe me, I’m trying like hell to keep typing and not just sit here in a pool of my own self-pitying grief for kids I barely knew in a place I’ve come to love at some level, it matters a whole lot more than just our (hopefully) usual human response to tragedy.

So, in keeping with a format that a) keeps my ADD at bay and b) lets me make a list, here’s 5 reasons why some dead kids in Kabul should matter.

Go here to read the 5 reasons.

His reason #3: This is going to be blamed on the Haqqani.   On September 8, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi  blamed Saturday’s attack on the Haqqani network but did not say how he came to that conclusion.

CBS News report that the bomber, who Kabul police estimated to be about 14 years old, struck just before noon on a street that connects the alliance headquarters to the nearby U.S. and Italian embassies, a large U.S. military base and the Afghan Defense Ministry.  He reportedly detonated his explosives while walking down the street, according to Kabul police. The Ministry of Interior said some of the victims were street children.  The NYT has additional coverage of this attach here.

At the end of his piece, El Snarkistani asks, “After 11 years, billions of dollars, and thousands of lives (most of them Afghan), are we really doing any good that’s going to last more than a minute after we shut off the aid spigot?”

Good question. Are we?

 

 

Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker “Dedicates” The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio – to Whom?

Via El Snarkistani over in It’s Always Sunny in Kabul:

And this took over a year? Don’t they have Macbooks at the Embassy?

So part of Crocker’s legacy at the Embassy, besides being really excited about how much money has been siphoned out of the country due to massive corruption, and making sure that the majority of Department of State staff in this country never left Kabul, is the eponymous TV studio that took over a year to complete.

Now, instead of outsourcing ridiculous television ventures, the Embassy staff can now be inept all on their own.

Oh, El Snarky, so harsh. What is El Snarkistini talking about? This one:

Caption from US Embassy Kabul/FB:
The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio was dedicated on 24 June with a ribbon cutting at the Embassy by Ambassador Crocker and Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy, Eileen O’Connor. The production studio, which took over one year to complete, will give the Embassy the ability to do live television broadcasts and studio quality videos for the web.

Paging Mr. Universe, you are needed in Kabul A-S-A-P where you can now do live television broadcasts and studio quality videos for the web in Afghanistan, a country where 4.2% of the population are internet users and where more than half never uses television. That teevee number goes up 73% in the rural areas of Afghanistan, by the way.

Whose bright idea was this? Please do tell so we can give appropriate credit!

Okay – so since Ambassador Crocker “dedicated” this ahem, Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio on June 24, to whom did he dedicate this to?  To the best of our memory, even the late Richard Holbrooke who reportedly had his own personal archivist did not go so far as dedicate a building to himself.

Um, pardon me?  You mean why can’t ambassadors name stuff after themselves in a country where money obviously is not/not a problem it’s leaking left and right?

Because. It’s bad form. And it’s muy, muy embarassaurus. I’m writing this post under my desk, you guys!

Oh, yes — wouldn’t that look  like ambassadors are building a temple of their own greatness or something? But pray, what’s wrong with that? If they are in fact, great?

Well, for one thing, it reminds us of Alexander the Great who liked to found cities and name them after himself, in honour of his own achievements. By the way, last year the BBC had this interesting piece about the pitfalls of naming places after famous people. It’s a must read if you’re thinking of renaming things after yourself, too.

And then there’s El Jefe, Rafael Trujillo.  In 1936 the capital city of the Dominican Republic was changed from Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo. The province of San Cristobal was changed to “Trujillo”, and the nation’s highest peak, Pico Duarte, was renamed Pico Trujillo. Heck, this is a broadcast studio, it’s not like they’re naming a mountain after him.

Right you are, but huge problems with bad associations, see?

And it creates a bad precedence.   Seriously.  Are they going to start naming the chanceries and ambassadors’ residences with ambassadors’ names? Or new embassy compounds, or water towers?  Or roads and bridges built with aid money? What?

C’mon Ms. Eileen O’Connor, Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy and US Embassy Kabul folks, youreallydon’tthinkthislooksbad?

The State Department already has a  $10,000 award named after Ambassador Crocker (see Ryan C. Crocker Award for Outstanding Leadership in Expeditionary Diplomacy). I get that.  But I don’t know whose brainchild is the Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio or how much this cost American taxpayers. And this is still a shocker.  Also a production studio need folks to work there, so more 3161 employees are needed. And here I thought we’re shrinking our footprint there by 2014. Oops wait, aren’t we supposed to be there until 2024 to the Karzai’s clan endless delight? While we’re in the business of naming stuff, can we please, please name something big, a bridge, a building, the Parliament, “2014” as a reminder?  Oh, we can always rename it “2024” later to celebrate the next phase of this perplexing relationship.

In any case, I fervently hope that the Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio‘s name is carved in stone or the next ambassador might be tempted to re-brand that new shiny thing with his/her name. Of course, who’s going to say “no” if he/she wants to replace the carved stone with a new carved stone with a new name, hmnnn?

Domani Spero

Afghanistan SmackDown: El Snarkistani v. O’Hanlon, Unfuzzy Math and Creative No More Problemo

So we were watching Brooking’s Michael O’Hanlon on teevee one night talking about Afghanistan. These network folks should really invite our blog pal, El Snarkistani to talk about our pretend 51st state, because he talks more sense. But we were not disappointed because El Snarkistani later blogged about. Excerpt below:

I admit that I don’t know a whole lot about Michael E. O’Hanlon or Ian Livingston, but they wrote a piece for the New York Times: basically, things in Afghanistan are going just fine (By the way, Stephen Saideman did a short post on this. He raises some interesting questions.):

Here is what we know: Afghans are wealthier, healthier and better educated than ever before. Unquestionably, Afghan security forces are bigger and better. Despite the occasional spectacular attack, Kabul is relatively safe, accounting for less than 1 percent of violent episodes nationwide, thanks largely to the efforts of these troops. The security situation in the more dangerous south is also much improved, after two years of efforts by foreign and Afghan forces. The north and west are at least no longer deteriorating and collectively account for less than 10 percent of violence nationwide.

And now I know all I need to know about O’Hanlon/Livingston.

Oh, for those of you following along? This post is the one I talked about yesterday.

Allow me to retort, and I’m only going to limit myself to one line in that paragraph, as much as it physically pains me to do so.

Unquestionably, Afghan security forces are bigger and better.

That’s a great word: unquestionably. That means you have “facts” that are likely “irrefutable” which is another big word for “we are experts,” and can therefore “do math.”

That last shot across the bow will make sense shortly.

I’m not going to debate the quantity of ANSF. The force is definitely bigger: every year, there are more of them.

Better? No.

Then he went down the bottom of that dark bucket and looked at the bigger and better Afghan security forces. It turns out that “after nearly 10 years of ISAF intervention, and nearly two years of concerted effort by NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A) personnel, no unit at any level had achieved an “independent rating.” And he got the numbers and can do unfuzzy maths, too.

“So they changed the definition,” El Snarkistani writes.

They changed the definition of … Holy Mother of God and All Her Wacky Nephews! 

Via It’s All Sunny in Kabul: From page 43 of the 1230 report in October of 2011:

Prior to the spring campaign, IJC reviewed the definition of an Independent unit and concluded that the definition was too restrictive and would be difficult for any ANSF element to attain. As a result, IJC rewrote the definition of an Independent unit to reflect the reality that most ANSF force enablers will likely require long-term coalition assistance.

[…]

In a war that offers relatively few metrics by which to measure success, being run by an organization that shifts those metrics randomly to fit their message, it’s unusual to find solid numbers to demonstrate anything. In this case, it’s simple math.

The interwebs is hard.

I’m off to break the news to my wife: in honor of the genius that walks among us mere mortals, we’re naming our first child “O’Hanlon.” And he shall be great. And able to do the maths.

O’Hanlon El Snarkistani, tee-hee!  You really should read El Snarkistani’s stuff here and reader comment round 2 is here.

This reminds us of the large staffing gap at the State Department once, must have been during the tenure of Warren Christopher in the last century. (Yeah, I’m ancient, but no Botox!) Anyway, since it became a really bad problem, somebody decided to solve it surgically and quickly — by eliminating all the positions with a dash of a pen. So, no more staffing gap problem although the work still had to be done.

Eliminating the gap  and  redefinition are just a couple of tricks in your creative problem solving toolbox.  In some places, I bet that creative problem solving can get you a Superior Honor Award or if you are really, really lucky, even a Presidential Rank Award.

Anyway, El Snarkistani is not the only one who has issues with the notion that Afghanistan is fine.  “Mobutu Sese Seko”, the founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo has this piece, Winning the War Against Yesterday: Mike O’Hanlon’s Afghan Mad Libs with the following quip:

“What’s frustrating is how expected this all is. The Brookings Institution—still billed as the “left-wing” think tank by conservative media—is just as much a corporatized centrist disappointment as every other major Washington institution. It’s in the imperialism business: selling it, cheerleading it and then excusing it. (Just look at that donor list flush with arms contractors.)”

Now that’s enough to ruin your midnight snacks, isn’t it?

Domani Spero