Barefoot to Herat

in 6th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Karin Wolfs

The Iranian director Majid Majidi has crossed the Iranian border into Afghanistan three times. The first time he was captured by Taliban soldiers and questioned for three hours leaving most of his footage destroyed. But Majidi did not give up: he went a second and a third time, which resulted in a remarkable documentary film: “Barefoot to Herat”, his ninth film.

Carrying refugees from Herat and other Afghan cities, loaded trucks covered with dust arrive at a refugee camp. Other refugees arrive on foot, wandering through the desert, in despair, fleeing the heavy bombings and death in their home cities. Majidi fills the emptiness of the desert with the sound of pounding bombs that is in the heads of the refugees symbolizing the threat that chased them there. Majidi turns his camera where others look away: on the confused faces of orphan brothers and sisters most of them under ten years of age. Out of the dark night they appear with bags on their backs holding only bits of old bread that others have granted them.

The film’s title refers to an exhausted boy fighting against his tears. Barefooted, he started out for a two hour walk to Herat, the nearest city to the refugee camp, in order to beg for crumbs of bread for his little brothers and sisters. Halfway there, he had to give up because his feet were freezing. In another scene, the camera witnesses the burial of a two-years-old girl that died overnight because of the cold. Still, the power of the film is not in the depicted despair but in the sense of survival and hope that Majidi found along the flanks of the camp. These qualities are especially present in the children. This new generation might help build a new Afghanistan.

Open-air writing lessons are organized and kites are built out of plastic and sticks. One boy stares blankly into the void not able to remember how to build one. It only takes a helping hand to turn a traumatized victim of war back into a nine-year-old boy again. In a subsequent beautifully shot sequence, we see the silhouettes of a gang of kids running and playing with their kites. For a moment we forget we’re in a war zone. Majidi simply shows us the universality of youth.

Though he never steps in front of the camera, Majidi is quite present in his film. Not only through the kite he hands over to the confused little boy, but also through the basic questions he poses to newly arrived refugees: where are you from? why did you leave? who did you loose? And then there is the soundtrack, with the sounds of pounding bombs as a comment on the lost souls wandering through the desert and close ups of little children dying or begging for food.

Though some may argue that Majidi’s emphasis on the children is somewhat melodramatic, he convincingly shows us that even from a distance the effects of the bombings by the American army and its allies are very severe for the people on the ground.