When we pick up a handful of sand and let it run through our fingers, there’s something about it that feels ordinary, tangible, everyday. It reflects the simple, fluid nature of life, even though, as filmmaker Meena Nanji captures in View from a Grain of Sand, the passing of sand through fingers can occur amid war, violence, and oppression and in refugee camps far from one’s homeland.
To make the film, which screens as a benefit this Sunday at Santa Barbara Library’s Faulkner Gallery, Nanji made multiple trips back and forth from her Southern California home to war-torn Afghanistan and refugee camps in Pakistan. Intrigued by her Muslim heritage yet infuriated by the treatment of women in Afghanistan, the resulting film is beautiful and meditative, disturbing in its depiction of reality while simultaneously inspiring in its message of hope and survival.
As viewers, we are drawn intimately into the lives of Wajeeha, an activist with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA, the group benefiting from the screening); Roeena, a medical doctor treating women in the Pakistani refugee camps; and Shapire, a teacher. When asked how she chose these three out of the more than 100 she interviewed, Nanji said they chose her-and then they opened their lives to her camera throughout the years.
“They are so strong,” said Nanji. “It is remarkable how they deal with the reality they have to deal with every day. They are determined their lives will get better.” But Nanji did not always share their optimism as an observer, admitting, “I have less hope than they do, which I tried not to show.”
Much of Nanji’s despair in documenting the lives of Afghani women since 2000 stems from the lack of significant change after the Taliban fell. Afghanistan’s ruling party was notorious in its oppression of women, even though such treatment directly contradicts Islam’s veneration of women. So when the Taliban fell, Nanji explained, “There was a window of opportunity for change.” But the return to power of the warlords-former Soviet-battling mujahideen who then fought each other during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s-means those currently in power “are those responsible for some of the worst violence in history.”
So today, women still struggle for their basic freedoms even though, on paper, their rights are improving. Despite resistance, girls are being allowed into schools and Nanji has seen female journalists working in Kabul. Most triumphantly, women are serving in parliament, including the famous 27-year-old Malalai Joya, who speaks out openly against warlords and champions women’s rights.
With screenings such as this Sunday’s RAWA benefit in Santa Barbara, Nanji hopes to bring more attention to the region through the ordinary stories in View from a Grain of Sand. Such attention can mean better lives for the Afghani women, because, Nanji explained, the government there is sensitive to the world’s opinion. By writing letters to members of Congress, or even to members of the Afghan government, issues eclipsed by other world events can appear on the radar again.
Letter-writing, whether to officials or to the women themselves, is a way Nanji hopes to build bridges between individuals, and that’s what she sees as her next project. After watching View from a Grain of Sand, it’s clear that Wajeeha, Roeena, and Shapire are already serving as ambassadors for their people, and they’re certain to inspire viewer response. Their ability to survive is inspiring, and Nanji speaks of it with admiration. Because, after all, in describing her own efforts at activism and creating change, Nanji said, “It is all about hope, really.”
RAWA Santa Barbara screens View from a Grain of Sand on Sunday, June 10, at 6:30 p.m., at S.B. Library’s Faulkner Gallery. There will also be a bazaar of Afghan handicrafts and filmmaker Meena Nanji will be present. A $10 donation is requested. See rawasb.org.