Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Berkeley Filmmakers Explore the Lives of Women in Afghanistan By JUSTIN DeFREITAS

Friday March 24, 2006

Berkeley husband-and-wife filmmaking team Cliff Orloff and Olga Shalygin have taken several trips to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, and their most recent visit has resulted in a poignant film about the lives of Afghan women. Cut From Different Cloth: Burqas and Beliefs, a one-hour documentary, will air on PBS at 5 p.m. Sunday and again at 8 p.m. Thursday. 

The filmmakers focus their attention on Hasina, a 27-year-old woman who is, as the film states early on, Afghanistan’s equivalent of a radical feminist. 

The film features interviews with Afghan men and women and government officials, but it is at its best when it centers on Hasina. She is a remarkable woman, walking a delicate line between defiance and devotion. She is intelligent, sensitive, articulate, charming and strong. There is no ill will in her stance toward her culture’s restrictive mores; there is only the desire to be true to herself, to be true to womanhood and women’s rights, to do right by her family even when they think it’s wrong. Hasina is too humble to speak of herself as setting an example, as blazing a path, but that is essentially her role; she and other Afghan women like her are sacrificing a great deal to chip away at the barriers that their culture places before them. 

The filmmakers employ an interesting device: Orloff and Shalygin took their 27-year-old daughter Serena with them, to see the country and its women through her eyes as she lived with Hasina for two months. The approach has its rewards—a genuine friendship seems to take shape, and Serena’s presence does provide a vantage point the average American viewer can probably relate to—but it is hardly necessary. There is no need to set up an east-west conflict, for there is more than enough conflict in Hasina’s heart to carry this film. In a series of painful and poignant moments, Hasina’s brothers and sisters discuss their relationship with her and the ramifications of her lifestyle, revealing the unresolved conflicts between family and society.  

The film portrays much of modern-day Afghanistan’s repressive climate as the result of 25 years of warfare, combined with a backlash against the permissiveness of the country’s mid-century Communist era. In a society of great internal strife, women have essentially become the battleground. It’s as if the country’s men have for so long felt so beset upon by outsiders that they have compensated by exerting control over their women. 

The situation poses a difficult and potentially dangerous dilemma: Women must consent to oppression out of compassion for the oppressors. They do not necessarily walk in fear of outsiders or of the Taliban; they walk in fear of the shame they bring to their fathers and brothers should they step out of line. They obey out of love for the men who control them. Defiance is not a stick in the eye of Islam or the Taliban—it is a swipe at the very family that clothes, houses and feeds them. It takes a strong woman to walk that line, to retain the love of and for her family while setting her own path. And though governments may set more enlightened policies and police may enforce them, it is these acts of defiance and devotion that gradually win hearts and minds.  

What is especially maddening is watching a country in such need of strong, talented people as it ignores, stifles and condemns such a wide swath of its population—among them many of the country’s most potentially valuable leaders. It is painful to see Hasina, a woman of such depth, of such charm, of such intelligence, competence and ambition, go unappreciated by her family, by her culture, by her country. What a waste of potential, what a crime to condemn a person of such talent and grace.  

Cut From Different Cloth paints a picture of an Afghanistan that is regressing, that has been torn asunder and is slipping backward in a retreat from modernity. This a hardly a blueprint for rebuilding the country or healing its wounds, and it leaves the viewer with the impression that it is a nation that has little chance of making itself whole again if it cannot bear to embrace its better half. 



Cut From Different Cloth 

Produced and directed by Olga Shalygin and Cliff Orloff. 

Airs on PBS at 5 p.m. March 26 and at 8 p.m. March 30.?