The American director Elizabeth Mirzaei lived and worked in Afghanistan for several years. Together with her husband Gulistan she made several documentaries in country for Al Jazeera English, BBC and CNN.
It was through a newspaper article that Elizabeth and Gullistan first became aware of Laila Haidari, the charismatic title person from their first film, Laila at the Bridge. As the directors lived and worked in Kabul at that time, they decided to visit her restaurant, Taj Begum, where the waiters are former drug addicts.
– At first we were overwhelmed by the restaurant itself, and that a female entrepreneur could run a business the way she does in Kabul. Eventually, we realized that the story of Laila was so multifaceted that we wanted to tell her story. It was the start of three years of filming, says Elizabeth.
It is a quite interesting story we witness in Laila at the Bridge. Nearly all by herself, Laila has started a detox clinic and the aforementioned restaurant, which serves as a way back in to a working life for drug addicts. Along with her big brother (a cheerful, David Crosby lookalike), who has first-hand experience, after he became sober after 25 years of drug abuse, she runs the clinic almost without financial support and with unorthodox methods. Ice baths and therapy are the essential parts of the treatment. Methadone and other opiates are absent at the clinic. On regular basis, she visits the addicted that have gathered under a bridge in Kabul and give them food. Although apparently she seems tough and hard, the love for the addicts is never far away. She also has a great sense of humour, and there are frequent frustrated outbreaks against the people in charge in the country.
Is the way Laila work unique in Afghanistan?
– We haven’t heard of anyone else doing what she’s doing. There are other drug addiction treatment centers, but these are either funded by the government or private foundations. Laila has been self-funding her center through the proceeds from her restaurant, so she is managing two unique enterprises. She also really emphasizes the role of follow-up in addiction recovery and she really believes in the success of the 12-Step Narcotics Anonymous methodology that Afghan government officials don't approve of.
In the film we are presented with several shocking facts regarding the challenges with drugs in Afghanistan. The country accounts for about 90 per cent of all opium production in the world, and despite the fact that much is being smuggled out of the country, a lot remains for domestic use. A consequence of the easy access to drugs has lead to the street price of a user dose heroin being the same as the price of two breads, and an overwhelming eleven per cent of the population are drug addicts. Cynic mafia with powerful contacts inside the government keep a strong grip on the situation.
Can you say something about how the enormous number of drug addicts affects society in Afghanistan?
– That figure has likely risen since the completion of the film. Having over three million people addicted in a country of around 35 million people is staggering. Millions of people who could be positively contributing to the country and, first and foremost, supporting their own families are instead suffering and dying from the serious illness of addiction. As the sister to a man addicted to heroin for 25 years, Laila knows this well. She witnessed the tragic consequences this had on her and on her brother’s wife and children. And so when one person who is addicted can get clean and turn their life around, it’s their whole family who benefits and Afghan society at large.
Elizabeth says the filmmaking process was a strange combination of being stressful, dangerous, joyful, difficult, sorrowful, beautiful and frustrating. The same words she often uses to describe the country of Afghanistan. The relationship two the government was twofold during the shooting.
– At some point we were threatened, and then we chose to take a break from the shooting of the film. We met both members of the government who didn’t like the project, but also others who were positive and took the time to talk to us.
How would you describe life as a documentary filmmaker in Afghanistan in general?
It depends very much on which type of movie you are making. We met a wide range of challenges, including threats, but we also gained access to a variety of situations. In general, the situation in the country has deteriorated further for all types of media. In April, we lost our good friend and former colleague Shah Marai (journalist of the AFP news agency) in an attack aimed at journalists.
Has your movie been screened in Afghanistan?
– The film has not been screened in Afghanistan. As this is a very intimate and sensitive subject, we will not be airing the film on Afghan television to protect the privacy and ensure the safety of people in the film.