In an age glutted with digital images, the documentary Frame by Frame is a bracing tribute to the power of photojournalism. Directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli follow four photographers who have been working doggedly in Afghanistan, in the vanguard of a post-Taliban free press. The documentary, which is receiving its world premiere at SXSW, is as artful and empathetic as its subjects’ work. International festival and broadcast interest is assured, and a theatrical run in select markets could connect with connoisseurs of political reportage with a strong personal component.
Over the opening credits, the directors craft a capsule history of modern Afghanistan, from the 1979 Soviet invasion through the Taliban’s ouster from Kabul in 2001. During that group’s five-year reign, it was a crime to take pictures. In the years since the media ban was lifted, a photo revolution has been under way, according to Najibullah Musafar, the eldest of the film’s central quartet. Musafar teaches photography and believes that photographic images are integral to a country’s identity.
A less experienced photographer, the gentle and devout Wakil Kohsar, chronicles aspects of society that might otherwise be ignored. Engaging with some of the country’s many heroin addicts — those living on the streets as well as patients at recovery centers — he says with certainty that “a photo can lead to change.”
Somewhat more conflicted about his work, even as he knows it’s his calling, is Massoud Hossaini, who received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography. He’s visibly distressed when recalling the circumstances of the picture that earned him international acclaim: a bombing during a religious procession. Visiting with the family of the photo’s subject, he’s tender and patient with a shy child and listens to the mother’s heartbreaking observation: “Every year our wounds get fresher.”
Putting herself in particularly challenging situations is Hossaini’s wife, Farzana Wahidy, who focuses on Afghan women, to the dismay of traditionalists who believe that females belong in the shadows and not at the center of a viewfinder. Wahidy, who at age 13 was attacked by a stranger for not wearing a burqa, speaks with quiet outrage of the Taliban’s impact on her generation, especially among women who were denied educations.
Wahidy’s trip to Herat, a city with a high reported incidence of self-immolation, is a lesson in the dangers that persist. A burn unit doctor is adamant that Wahidy’s camera would endanger all of them. The filmmakers’ cameras are afforded more leeway as he spells out why. Driving home the point, end titles note a rising number of cases of violence against journos in Afghanistan, and two Afghan members of the crew are listed as “Anonymous” in the closing credits.
In the most powerful scene, Wahidy interviews a burn victim away from the hospital (“Choose a name,” she tells her). The documentarians’ lens zeros in on the delicate beadwork the woman performs with needle and thread, her arms terribly scarred. Her matter-of-fact description of the horrific torture she endured at the hands of her in-laws and husband is devastating. Bombach and Scarpelli wisely let the moment and its aftermath play out without rushing in to break the silence. When Wahidy wipes away her tears and lifts her camera to photograph the woman, the gesture has the weight and emotion of a benediction.
The filmmakers are attuned to the workaday camaraderie and competitive spirit that drive their thoughtful subjects. And like the four photojournalists, they have an eye for beauty as well as a nose for news, capturing scenes of unexpected lightness: an open-air pop concert, a paddleboat ride on a glass-smooth lake. Frame by Frame is a work of profound immediacy, in sync with the photographers’ commitment and hope. As Kohsar insists when an election official makes the friendly offer of staged photo ops, “It’s better if it’s real.”
Production companies: Red Reel, Rake Films
Featuring: Farzana Wahidy, Massoud Wahidy, Najibullah Musafar, Wakil Kohsar
Directors: Alexandria Bombach, Mo Scarpelli
Producers: Alexandria Bombach, Mo Scarpelli, Jeff Orlowski
Executive producers: Nancy Schafer, Louis Venezia
Directors of photography: Alexandria Bombach, Mo Scarpelli
Editor: Alexandria Bombach
Composer: Patrick Jonsson
No rating, 85 minutes