The price of bread

Gayatri Kumar on child marriage, Afghanistan today, and Coffined At 15

by Jennie Kermode

Behind the scenes on Coffined At 15
Behind the scenes on Coffined At 15

Just screened for the first time at Dances With Films in Los Angeles, Coffined At 15 is a powerful short film about a girl whose family is planning to sell her to the Taliban as a child bride. It has a cast of Afghan refugees and was directed by Indian American filmmaker Gayatri Kumar, who hopes to use it both to draw attention to what’s happening in the country and to raise funds with which to provide practical help to those at risk. When Gayatri and I met to discuss it, I began by asking her about the real child bride who inspired it.

Gayatri Kumar
Gayatri Kumar

“The team that I've been working with, they're all Afghan refugees, and actually, the woman who I hired as my research analyst, Sonia Qureshi, she flew out of Afghanistan a few years ago, she had been attacked by the Taliban. So she got out of there super fast. Her family is still back there. She came up to me one day and she was telling me ‘Oh, my brother was approached by this woman. He was an army doctor and now he's out of work, but he was at the hospital one day and he was approached by this woman, who's Hazara, which is an ethnic tribe over there, it's very oppressed. And she was looking to sell her daughter, and she approached him literally every day.’

“So Sonia told me about that. And I was like, ‘Holy crap!’ I mean, it's one of those things that just hits you and just keeps on moving around in your mind. So my film team and I decided, okay, well, let's try to do something about that. So we got together, raised some funds, and sent it to her brother through Western Union, which at that time was working pretty well. And so he picked up the money and he went to her house. Now, the mother thought that, you know, he was going over there to buy her daughter. So she starts putting all of these nice clothes on her daughter, and her daughter knows. I mean, she's young, but she's aware of this. So she starts crying. And when the doorknob turns, she just gets up and she's running from corner to corner. And he comes in with the cash. And then he says, ‘No, no, no, I'm not here to buy her. I'm just here to help you guys.’ And he gave the cash to her mother. And she just leapt onto her mother, she didn't let go. And she just kept crying. They couldn't believe it. I mean, it was very unusual for them, but they were so so happy.

“So over the next few weeks, he would go and check on them, see if she was still there. And she she was - and she still is. They send photos through him to us, from time to time, to show us that she's still there with them. It's like a feeling unlike any other. So anyways, I asked him if he could translate and get a conversation going with her. And he did. And man, this was something else. She asked me ‘Why did the Americans leave us?’ It was a very hard conversation. But you know, she was so happy because she said, ‘I used to pray every single day that my mom would come back with no-one. And she said, ‘My prayers are finally answered.’ So her faith was just through the roof. And she's never left her prayers since then.”

Coffined At 15
Coffined At 15

After that conversation, she says, she felt compelled to make a film on the subject, and everything else flowed from there.

“I thought ‘If I want to do something differently, how am I going to do it?’ Because the thing is, I'm in Hollywood right now. I’m staying in a hotel.” She moves her camera around to show me the room. “There's lots of glitz and there's lots of glamour. But the thing is that people are bankrupt of ideas. You know, they're going around to find good ideas. Here's the thing: I contacted so many people – friends, family, professors, friends of friends, people I didn't even know, and I just asked them, you know, ‘I have this story. Tell me how you think it ends.’ 99% of people said, ‘Oh, okay, well, you know, they'll take her away at the end. She will get raped.’ Or ‘It'll be a bittersweet ending. She’ll try to run away and they'll pick her up on the way.’ There were all kinds of endings that were like this, where all hope was lost.

“There were two people that said ‘This has to have a positive ending.’ And I thought to myself, if you want to do something different, if you want to give society something that it really needs, you can't keep poking the wound. You have to give them some medicine. And so this story, in a way, is inspiration. Right now, Afghanistan doesn't have any one supporting it. Who's going to go there and risk their life? All the countries have left. All that's left is Islam. That's it. The Taliban is playing it like a card, but there are people like this girl who really have faith in their god and are being supported by it. So the whole thing was to have a film that doesn't just show what happens, but shows what can happen, how the Taliban can be defeated by a poor resourceless girl, a girl who has the status of a goat today.

“I thought, ‘How am I going to do this? How am I going to express the pain of these people in a in a way that's not vile?’ With terrible sexual crimes like this, don't expose their pain like that on camera – it can really hurt them. So I decided to, as a filmmaker, take the liberty of being absolutely cinematic with this and use a coffin to express all that pain. And then, of course, in five minutes, you're going to see the bad guys, the good guys, you're going to see the problem and you're going to see the solution. If it's short, it's more likely that more people will watch it than if it was, like, two hours.

Coffined At 15
Coffined At 15

One of the ways that the film communicates this efficiently is by pitting the Taliban’s song of praise, the Attan, against the Azan – the call to prayer. I ask how that idea developed. Some readers may find the answer distressing.

“One of the first refugees I had the pleasure of meeting in Delhi was this this lady who” – Gayatri hesitates for a moment – “she doesn't have eyes. Her eyes were gouged out. She was a police officer in the Ghazni province and her father ratted out on her to the Taliban. And she was pregnant at the time, she was two months pregnant. They shot her eight times. And then they took her eyes out of their sockets. They were going to feed her to the dogs. By the miracle of God, she was flown out of there. Actually, in several countries today, in Europe and America, they still fund her surgeries, any kind of medical treatments she needs.

“She’s a mother who can't even see the girl she’s given birth to. How does a person without eyes even cry? Her tears come out of her nose. It's very sad. After meeting her, I thought, if I'm going to make a film, I want to make a film that even a person without eyes can understand. So the importance of having the musical battle that's going on here is that she will understand what's happening.

“The first thing you hear is the Attan. It's like a song of praise to the Taliban. They're saying ‘We're like lions, nobody can defeat us, we are the army of God’ – boosting themselves a lot. And this was actually performed by a really famous Bollywood playback singer who's done several blockbuster films, Shadab Farid. He is actually a family friend and I just approached him He was like, ‘Well, you know, I have to do this.’ He did it super fast and in a really great way. And then, of course, the other part is the Azan, and this was already made, I just got the rights to the song to put into the film. But really it is that it is a person without eyes will be able to understand that over here, you have the Taliban, and then over here you have the Islamic call to prayer. And this one is being overwhelmed by God. The Taliban sells its religion, and whatever you sell will sell you one day, too. So this is metaphorically, symbolically, representing that.”

Coffined At 15
Coffined At 15

All the roles in the film are played by Afghan refugees. Was it traumatic for them to go into that space?

“You know, I remember, I used to go from door to door in the communities, not at that time finding actors, finding people to talk to. I came across one girl who had thalassemia, which is a blood disorder. I was speaking with her, and over there, they watch a lot of Bollywood films. They really like it. So she was watching the TV, this Bollywood film was playing. And I was like, ‘So what do you want to be when you grow up?’ She was like, ‘I'd love to be an actor.’ And I was like, ‘Why not?’ I had auditioned several people for a role and nothing felt, right. I mean, I spoke to these kids, and, obviously, they've never been through what Afghan children have been through. Now, when I came across her, and she spoke to me like this, it just felt like ‘This is it. This is where I have to go.’

“As a filmmaker, I believe in democratic filmmaking, which is this philosophy to take the people who are inspiring your story, you know? I always give this example: you’ve got The Pursuit Of Happyness, okay? Will Smith is playing homeless man. Nobody's going to think about homeless people after the film, they're going to think about Will Smith, they're going to think about the movie, and then he's going to walk away with money in his pocket. The homeless will still be homeless. So if you can even change one person's life, that's good. That's change. So I thought, if I take the people whose pain this is, the tears, the fears, they should have ownership over that. If there's any money being earned off the sale, it should go to them, you know?

“They've taken ownership over over their story. This is something they've said they'll remember for the rest of their lives. We had interviews going on during the workshops and stuff. Many of them were like, ‘I'm not going to be able to go home to Afghanistan after doing this film, because they're going to kill me.’ But they were like, ‘Well, there's no other way to make our voices heard. And we didn't get to get our revenge at that time. So we're going to get revenge. We're going to do it this way.’ So this is five minutes or revenge for them.

Coffined At 15
Coffined At 15

“During the set, a lot of the actors who were playing the Taliban soldiers were creating short videos of their own. They were talking about the Taliban and they were playing the role of the Taliban to really disgrace them because they said they won't be able to do this in their country.”

She tells me about an actress who was crying on set so hard that she realised the tears were real, and stopped filming to talk to her. Later, when the coffin appeared on set, she started crying too.

“You can't not cry. That was those those minutes when he's dragging his daughter to the coffin. I mean, everybody just stops. So it was definitely something that hit you emotionally. But I will tell you, there has been so much change with them. I've grown so close to them. We video chat a lot. I’ve been showing them around over here. Our main villain in this film who goes to marry Rihana, he had some drinking problems coming into the film, and after this, he's given up alcohol. He started going on these charity sprees, and he sends me photos and it's amazing to see that a film that is so traumatising has actually lifted spirits. And I think that's what it's all about. If you're going to make a film on this subject, don't make it if the price is that you're going to traumatise these people even more, because that's not worth it. But I've seen our child bride Rihana. She's so confident. She's like, ‘I'm going to go on and do something for these people. I'm going to do something for my country.’ The girl with thalassemia, she's like, ‘As soon as I get money, I'm going to start charities,’ and she already is part of our Bread Movement, she helped get money.”

The Bread Movement was started by people on the film team. I ask Gayatri if she wants to explain a bit about what it is and what it does.

“Sure. So right now, in Afghanistan, the problem that they're having is poverty. The situation is very bad over there, which is why there is such an unprecedented rise in child marriages. Over there, they have naan, or bread, as their main meal, especially for the poor. To make it you need your flour and then, of course, you have the tandoor stove that you make it in, which needs fuel. If they can't afford it, they don't even get that all the time. So you find families actually just eating raw flour, because they can't make bread. One bread will cost 13 cents. So, what we did was, we gathered together many people, and these refugees came together to put money together for the families back over there.

Coffined At 15
Coffined At 15

“So we sent it through Western Union to some of our contacts over there, and what they did was, you know, usually, they'll just give it to the vendor who sits there to make the bread. So what we did was, we actually got all the bread – every day it was like 300 bread, 600 bread – and we put it in the car, and we drove around going to the people who can't make it there. Our goal was to give it to women and their dependents because they can't work and they're the ones were the most oppressed. Our goal was also give it to the Hazara people because they are also terribly oppressed under the Taliban regime. We went from person to person on the roads, on the streets, in the villages, in the homes and gave it to them.”

In one of those villages they had an unlikely encounter, she recalls.

“You know how villages have Taliban heads? One Taliban head came up and he's like, ‘What's going on?’ You know, because we were also taking videos, and he saw this and it got a little suspicious. And we said, ‘We're just giving bread.’ And then after a few minutes, he really got into it, and he started helping us.”

The Attan song from the film will soon be available on iTunes and Spotify, she tells me, with all profits going to the Bread Movement, because families who have enough to eat don’t need to sell their daughters.

“There needs to be CSR, corporate social responsibility, in this entertainment industry. I mean, look at Hollywood, man, I mean, how much money do they make? $30 million is the budget for one episode of Stranger Things. I'm saying, if you have that kind of money, yeah, you better do CSR, you better be doing something to help someone in society. That's just how it should operate. I hope that this film will inspire other filmmakers to incorporate all those people and try to have a positive impact.”

Going back to the film itself, I ask her about the age of the girl, Rihana, who is to be married. Is she 15 simply because of the age of the actor who happened to be right for the part, or because it would have been too much for an audience outside Afghanistan to take in, that this happens to much younger girls?

Coffined At 15
Coffined At 15

“This was more for me than for others,” she says. “I just found out that a girl of two months was being sold. She just came into this world, you know? She doesn't even know who her mom and dad are. And so as a human, I don't think I would be be able to even show that. I would probably just tear down. It's too hard for me. So I picked an age that, okay, I can get through it. And I can do it. If I went you know, below 10. I wouldn't be able to.”

Coffined at 15 is, I’m told, a proof of concept for a feature film.

“Yeah. One Day Before Being Sold has the same characters. It's about 15 year old girl named Rihana as well. She finds out on her birthday that her father is planning to sell her to the Taliban the next day. So now, with this information, she has 24 hours with her loved ones, to make the most of this this final time together. What do they do? How do they try to get out of this? They’re resourceless, they're women, they can't leave the home. What are they going do? This is about those 24 hours, and, you know, this film is going to answer the question for women in Afghanistan, in that situation, what do you have?

“This is a film that women will love and the Taliban will hate. This is a film that nobody's seen before, because you have films about sex trafficking and child trafficking, but very seldom are there instances when the father is the one selling that his daughter and the daughter knows what's going to happen to her. And they're all in a house. I mean, this film, the majority of it is just inside a small house, they're going to feel claustrophobic. You're going to feel what they're feeling. You can't escape. You're a 15 year old girl – forget about marriage, you don't even know what sex means, never mind rape. You know what I mean? There's so much at stake. There's such little time. And what happens in between is absolutely unbelievable.

“I say, as a filmmaker, you don't have to go to every single place in Afghanistan, you don't have to go to multiple homes, you don't have to travel the entire landscape. Just go inside one house. You’re going to find the devil, you're going to find an angel, you're going to find a battle that will literally shake people to the floor. So that's what that's what this is all about. And this is going to have scenes that that are crazy. The proof of concept that I actually was going to shoot was another part of this film. I didn't get to, but I will just let you know: it is absolutely terrifying and magnificent. And there is there is revenge in this. This is something that woman will be dying to watch.”

You can find out more about Coffined At 15 here.

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