The Making of Shadow of Afghanistan by Mary Ann Skweres

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, June 2007. The Making of Shadow of Afghanistan by Mary Ann Skweres. Pages 10, 12 – 14.

Perhaps dedication is the principal personality trait necessary for documentary filmmakers, who often take years to finish the project of their heart. It certainly is a trait that I experienced first-hand as the co-editor of “Shadow of Afghanistan,” a film twenty years in the making that looks behind the headlines into the history of war-torn
Afghanistan and the events that laid the groundwork for the tragedy of 9-11.

Told through the eyes of an Afghan warrior, and two freelance journalists, this epic story chronicles the struggles of the fiercely independent Afghan people to survive and regain their freedom during two decades of occupation and war. The in-depth account brings to light the years that the Afghans were used as pawns in a Russian and American Cold War chess game where tens of thousands were killed and maimed, millions exiled and a generation of orphans were lost to fundamentalist Islamic teachings. The saga continues as the country is further torn asunder by violent civil war, the tragic and fateful alliance between the ruling Taliban and Al Qaeda, and the subsequent US bombing
and invasion. The resilient thread that is the Afghan people ties the tale together.

The film is co-directed and co-produced by Academy Award nominated filmmakers, Jim Burroughs (“Cuba: In the Shadow of Doubt,” “Quest for the Ark,” “Man Eaters of Tsavo”) and Suzanne Bauman (“Cuba: In the Shadow of Doubt,” “Against Wind and Tide,” “Jackie: Behind the Myth”). Explaining documentary storytelling process Bauman comments, “The story was discovered in the cutting room. Classic documentary…you film what’s there and then you sit back, watch and get feedback from the screen about what it is you have. You do not stay wedded to preconceptions. In that sense it is different from fiction. Nonfiction is full of surprises. You can’t predict it because you’re not writing out of your head. You’re finding it in front of you.”

The film began shooting in 1985 under the auspices of Seven Leagues Productions, a company helmed by Burroughs
and Bauman, which was documenting the plight of refugees around the world for the United Nations.

“Afghanistan was an ongoing resistance movement,” says Bauman. “The Afghan people were different and  remarkable. You couldn’t get your mind off them. Jim started trying to find ways to go back.” The early
footage is apparent in the Bauman continues, “Then you get sucked into why this happened. You start wanting to tell the story of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – a David and Goliath story of people trying to kickout one of the most powerful countries on earth from their land.”

A turning point occurred after journalist Lee Shapiro was killed. Burroughs and Bauman had never met Shapiro, but his footage was vaulted at the same location as theirs. Burroughs was introduced to Dr. Carmen Zuniga, who had filmed with Shapiro in Afghanistan. That led to a relationship where Burroughs and Bauman agreed to finish the film that Shapiro had started. Shapiro became a principal character in the combined effort.

“If we had gotten the money to finish the film in 1989 when the Soviets left, it would have been a good one-hour documentary, but everyone said, ‘It’s no longer topical,’” remarks Bauman. The filmmakers kept following the story and filming. During the Taliban era Burroughs and Zuniga snuck into Afghanistan, this time to find Shapiro’s grave, but 9-11 really kicked the project back into full gear. Burroughs returned to shoot a month after the US bombing.

Zuniga accompanied him on his next trip as the Afghans were attempting to form a democratic government. In all Burroughs made seventeen trips to Afghanistan to film. The filmmakers also acquired newsreel and other footage to round out the story. Using very little narration, they relied on the people in the film to tell their own story, including excerpts from Shapiro’s own diary.

Funding was a continuous problem. Although money was provided to shoot, no money was available for finishing despite all the great footage that was already in the can. Bauman comments, “There was a turning point in ‘85 in the attitudes of public television towards funding. It was the Reagan years. They were not interested in the stories of poor people in the world. America was very egocentric. When we tried to raise money for Afghanistan, we knocked on every single door for years. After 9-11, the same problem. It’s a real documentary, not just spin on the news. We decided if we spent as much time working on the film as trying to raise money we could finish the project.”

Nevertheless despite the frustrations over not having financial resources to complete the documentary, every year afforded a greater perspective on the story.

A technical challenge in finalizing the film was conforming the various film and tape formats used over the extended production.

Bauman quips, “The shooting format was a history of film. Everything we shot for the first ten years or so was super 16 mm with 1/4” tape from Nagra recorders. The footage was processed to work print and cut on a Steinbeck. By the time we got to the 21st century, we crossed the digital divide.”

The editing moved onto Avid. Because of the limited budget – mostly what the filmmakers could afford out of their own pockets – footage was digitized off old 3/4’ tapes, VHS and “poor man’s telecine” created by running work print on the flatbed and shooting mini-DV of the viewing screen. This formed the nonlinear cut along with newer footage that was shot on Beta SP and mini DV.

By 2001, when Afghanistan was again making mainstream news, the editing team moved onto Final Cut Pro, a more affordable alternative to Avid rental at $1500 a week.

Except for the Beta SP and mini DV sources, none of this video footage was mastering quality and none of it related back to the negative key numbers of the original film. Digi Beta masters with DV clones for editing needed to be made from the original negative that was stored across the country – from the DuArt vault in New York to storage lockers in Los Angeles. Still suffering from a lack of funding, creative problem solving was employed to get the telecine done. Solutions included deferred payments and the bartering of services. The scratch video in the cut was then replaced by the master materials, which had to be eye-matched shot by shot.

The sound also had to be found and replaced. With aging, magnetic audiotape becomes prone to flaking. For preservation and to avoid damage, the master tapes had to be baked at a low temperature using a food dehydrator. An old Nagra was rigged to capture the audio to digital files in the FCP. This audio was then replaced by ear, line by line.

Many people supported the film during the course of its making.

While Bauman and myself (I joined the team about ten years ago) fine-tuned the edit, Burroughs composed the score, often using traditional Afghan instruments. His daughter Doah sang the original title song, “Time Will Tell”. Son Ryan created the website and poster. Bob Bayless produced and mixed the music at his Hollywood Dell Digital Studio. The third producer on the project, Dan Devaney, a sound engineer and cameraman who accompanied Burroughs on several trips to Afghanistan, brought in veteran feature film sound designer, Jay Nierenberg, who edited sound effects and mixed the final audio. The film was onlined to a Digi Beta master at DuArt Laboratories in New York, then up-rezed to HD with stereo sound for screening. Some footage remains to be changed before the DVD is made. Bauman confesses they are still looking for an angel, “I hear there are angels in all religions,
Christian, Muslim and Jewish.”

In November 2005, the film received critical acclaim when it was first presented as a work-in-progress at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam. This spring, the documentary premiered to sold-out houses, great audience response and positive reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival. Additional film festival screenings are planned here and abroad. Limited theatrical screenings in New York and Los Angeles are in the works for this
summer followed by distribution in colleges and schools.

Bauman encourages emerging documentarians, “To find a story worth telling, to be passionate about it and to be prepared to know everything about that story that you could possibly know. Once you know your story, choose how you are going to tell it. That will determine the technology. If it is newsworthy and has to be told fast, buy cheap equipment and run with the gun. If it is something that is more philosophical or an overview of the arts, then go and
apply for grants, take a longer time, use Hi Def equipment and make it beautiful. Learn the craft. As for where to go for money…it’s best to have a rich relative.”

Mary Ann Skweres is an award-winning independent writer/director with over a dozen produced short films under her belt. A member of the Editor’s Guild, she has edited feature films, documentaries and shorts. She writes about the art and craft of filmmaking for magazines including Below the Line, Film and Video, VFX World and Animation World Network. Contact mas4reel@aol.com.

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