In the past 20 years, Fremont has become the de facto capital of Afghan-America. In the weeks after 9/11 and the start of the 2001 war in Afghanistan, reporters from around the world descended on the Alameda County city to gauge the pulse of the community, and since those days, most media attention on Fremont has been filtered through the lens of the terrorist attacks or the continuing conflict in Afghanistan. A new film about Fremont's Afghan community takes a different approach. Instead of a backdrop of violence, the film explores how Afghan-Americans are adjusting to new lives in their adopted country, in their adopted capital, which is often called "Little Kabul."
Aisha Jamal's documentary, Stories From Little Kabul, which has its world premiere on Saturday, April 9, 2011 at the Tiburon International Film Festival, is an important addition to other media offerings about the Afghan community. Khaled Hosseini's novel, The Kite Runner, which spawned a popular movie, is the best-known narrative that depicts Afghan Americans, but its narrative is Hollywood-ized. The narratives in Stories From Little Kabul are more ambiguous, laden with bittersweet feelings about having to navigate a U.S. culture that seems both welcoming and strange.
"My husband and I both wanted to be teachers (in the United States) but the first astonishing thing I saw was I didn't feel much respect toward teachers here," Torpekay Haidari, an Afghan-American who lives in the Fremont area, tells filmmaker Aisha Jamal. "I went to one of the high schools. I noticed a huge difference between the way teachers are treated in our (Afghan) society and the way teachers are treated here. Not being very aware of the culture, I considered that an insult -- that, for example, students would be lying down and talking to their teachers. In Afghanistan, when you enter the class as a teacher, all the students stand up."
Besides Haidari, who found work at a waste-disposal company, Jamal's film features an actor who is well known in Afghanistan (Azizullah Hadaf), a stand-up comedian who also has a big reputation in his former homeland (Zalmai Araa), a singer who learned to play drums as a child (Khalil Ragheb), a man who earned a Ph.D. in political science (Qayyum Kochai), and a few others who become stand-ins for the thousands of Afghan-Americans who live in the Fremont area. They speak candidly to Jamal, an Afghan filmmaker who was born in Kandahar and lived with her family in Pakistan before moving at age 11 to Canada, where she's now a university instructor. The trust that developed between Jamal and her subjects is one reason that Stories From Little Kabul works so well. Araa, for example, does part of a routine where he imitates an older man and older woman arguing about their daughter's education. Fans of Robin Williams will see similarities in Araa's quick-witted abilities.
The bittersweet is never far behind, though. Toward the documentary's end, Hadaf talks about wanting to be buried in Afghanistan when he dies. Despite the fact that the Fremont area is replete with Afghan shops, Afghan mosques and other Afghan establishments, Hadaf echoes many older Afghans when he expresses longing for his homeland.
The film is shot in a basic documentary style, with many of the interviews taking place in living rooms, but there is enough "action," whether it's Araa doing his comic bit, Ragheb playing the piano, or Haidari dancing in a kitchen, to give Stories From Little Kabul an edge that is sustained from start to finish.
Stories From Little Kabul screens at 2pm on Saturday, April 9, 2011 at the Tiburon International Film Festival. For tickets and more information visit tiburonfilmfestival.com.