Love Is a Battlefield at the Human Rights Watch Film Fest


“Love is a crime,” says an Afghan female prisoner in the new documentary Love Crimes of Kabul.

Though travails of the heart may seem trivial compared with the panoply of atrocities on display at the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival (June 16 through 30 at the Walter Reade Theater)—which this year includes mass killings in Guatemala and Colombia, sex trafficking in Eastern Europe, and the intractable madness of the Arab-Israeli conflict—they turn out to be just as revealing.

Love Crimes of Kabul, which also premieres on HBO July 11, documents three inmates in Afghanistan’s Badam Bagh prison who have been imprisoned for “moral crimes” such as adultery and premarital sex. Iranian-Jewish American filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian says the film was originally inspired by two young lovers who were executed in 2009 for trying to elope in the Taliban-controlled area of Nimruz. But that region was too dangerous, so she decided to focus on the women’s prison instead.

“What I like to do is bring a little bit of understanding to the American public about what life is like over there by showing intense stories of people living at the margins,” says the Manhattan-based Eshaghian, whose last film, the 2008 Berlin prizewinner Be Like Others, focused on transsexuals in Iran. By showing a nation’s outliers, she believes that the culture’s social norms, however foreign to Western viewers, will become clear. As she explains, “the minute someone transgresses a line, it’s apparent what that line is.”

Rather than focus overtly on politics or military intervention, Eshaghian has a more humanitarian goal. “I hope when you watch both films you identify with the characters, and the next time you see something about Afghanistan [or Iran] you can feel they are human like you.”

She elaborates: “It’s important to understand who you’re invading.”

Indeed, Love Crimes’ characters are eminently relatable: a smitten 17-year-old, a headstrong adulterous divorcée who says her parents “plan to quietly drown me,” and a charismatic fiancée who uses the unjust court system to her own advantage. And unlike certain self-righteous human-rights docs, the movie paints a hazier picture of female subjugation. “You cannot simply say these are women who are oppressed or poor things,” says the filmmaker. “The laws for women are terrible and they should be given more rights, but they still find ways to get what they want.”

Still, the film shows how naïve it is for U.S. policymakers to believe—or at least say that they believe—that Afghanistan
is approaching a stable and equitable democracy. (When Eshaghian was making the film, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside her hotel.)

“It’s not possible to change a culture overnight,” she says. “For instance, if someone came to the U.S. and said, ‘From tomorrow, everyone has to wear a bikini every day,’ you’d say, ‘What?’ It’s that same idea: The Americans are here; now you don’t have to wear a burqa? That’s not going to happen. Women told me, ‘If I take off my burqa, it’s going to signal to the men that you can molest me.’ At this point, it’s part of who they are.”

For her next project, Eshaghian hopes to make a film about the elderly, possibly in her native Iran. While she has misgivings about returning to the country—“I’m not sure if it’s safe to go back now,” she says—a documentary on the subject would likely be permitted. “It’s clearly not political if you’re filming 80-year-olds,” she says—though given Eshaghian’s previous films, such personal subjects often are.

‘Love Crimes of Kabul’ screens June 20–22 as part of the 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival,