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Categories: Interviews

Thomas Humphrey interviews documentary filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky, director of the award-winning Afghan war doc “Tell Spring Not to Come This Year”. 

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It can often feel like there is a war going on in contemporary film culture. Popular cinema seems to be locked in mortal combat with the films which are not mainstream. In other words, the formulaic and optimistic seems hellbent on vanquishing the experimental and thought-provoking (even if the latter can also be very formulaic). And as the decision put to viewers often seems to be between choosing a super-sized Happy Meal of happiness or a wafer-thin crumpet of reflection, it should perhaps not surprise us that mainstream cinema currently reigns so relentlessly supreme.

But really that kind of binary thinking fails to take one very important thing into account: sometimes it is important to forgo happiness, and sometimes it can be the most rewarding thing in the world to just sit with a film and think for an hour or so. So as the title might suggest, Tell Spring Not to Come This Year may not be easy watching or a giant McNugget of joy, but Michael McEvoy and Saeed Taji Farouky’s voyage into the Afghan warzone is one of those vital contemplative experiences.

These two directors have formed a team determined to tread the path less trodden with this eye-opening documentary, and its attempts to push that genre into a more artistic realm does put them alongside exciting contemporaries like Joshua Oppenheimer. Whilst Tell Spring Not to Come This Year doesn’t quite match Oppenheimer’s films for artistic intensity, it does share that director’s need to bring a vastly neglected perspective (in this case that of the Afghanis) to light, and for that reason in parts it is definitely just as compelling. 

Keen to find out more about the intentions and realities behind the camera of this deeply pensive film, I caught up with Saeed at this year’s London Film Festival.

How did the Afghanis you filmed respond to you and your team?

Well, some of the people in the film already knew Mike pretty well. He had served with them for nine months as a liaison officer. He had been there with the British military, and was a liaison between NATO troops and the Afghan National Army. That meant these guys had known him for a long time, and that helped hugely. They trusted him because of that, and they trusted me implicitly through him, I think. 

It also helped that I’m a Palestinian, because a lot of them related to the occupation of Palestine. They would say to me, “You and me we’re both the same, we’re both living under occupation.” So I think they understood that some kind of empathetic relationship existed between us.

Having said that, yes, they still found it strange when we would go on patrol with them, or go to the front line with them. I think it was that level of commitment they found strange. The fact that we would risk our lives with them, carrying no weapons too.

Tell Spring Not To Come 4_0

How did the soldiers feel? Did they feel like they were going to make it through this conflict or were they pessimistic?

In general, they have a very dark sense of humour. It’s not like the kind of thing we might see in a war film about American or British soldiers. They don’t spend a lot of time talking to each other about whether they’re going to die or make it out alive. I found that they would mostly just do their job to the best of their ability.

Although they were also very aware that stuff was going seriously wrong for them. Quite often, as well. It was not unusual that on any given operation, two or three soldiers would be killed and a dozen might be injured. So I definitely don’t mean to say there was something fatalistic about them, but I don’t think it comes as a surprise them when they experience an accident or an act of violence. Nevertheless, I still don’t feel they spent that much time contemplating their own death.

Was it difficult to get the troops to speak openly about how they felt?

It was difficult, yeah. I think achieving that is difficult in most documentaries, though. Unless you find somebody who’s a sort of natural story-teller. For me, that process is the most important part of a documentary, though: to reveal something you’ve never seen before, but also to allow the people to speak for themselves. I want to allow people a chance to, in a sense, narrate their own lives. But obviously that took a lot of time over the course of the year in which we filmed. I’d say it took a year for them to be comfortable enough to talk to us in that way.

It takes a long time, and involves a lot of going through a lot of very basic interview questions (for hours and hours) before you can get to what I think is the real heart of their story. It takes that time to get their very intimate thoughts. Their real thoughts about war, about their role in the war and about their own lives, you know?

Tell Spring Not to Come This Year_KEY STILL

Do you think modern documentary filmmakers are managing to show us the world anew in lots of exciting ways?

I’d say we’re in a very strange moment now, particularly for British documentaries. I mean, you have to realise that documentary has only very recently become a sort of viable industry. Prior to probably to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, there was never any thought that documentaries would be released generally in cinemas, or even make money. Or have some kind of huge impact on that scale.

So we’re in a stage now where on the one hand there is more opportunities, because more people are interested in documentaries. But at the same time, it’s now seen as a commercial part of the film industry, so there’s also more constraints. In a way it can be harder to find funding as a result, I think, because there are now a lot of commercial concerns which exist when people consider funding a film.

That said, British documentary also has a unique position in that Britain essentially invented the modern documentary. It was very much a BBC and ITV, and later Channel 4, creation in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. So it’s a country that used to lead the world in documentary film. It probably doesn’t any more, but it still has created a very, I would say, conservative and constrained version of what they think documentaries are. And that’s basically the mainstream, television documentary.

That means that if you’re outside of this system, you’re at a huge disadvantage. But you’re also encouraged quite simply by virtue of being a total outsider or radical. That gives you the courage to try new things and new ways of telling your story. That really inspires you to push this art form in different directions that you wouldn’t normally associate with documentaries.

Do you think documentaries like yours also have the potential to make sure something like the invasion of Afghanistan doesn’t happen again?

No, I don’t – not in a direct way. There are some documentaries that can do that; things like campaigning documentaries. But those aren’t really the sorts of films I make. That said, I think maybe my work can function on a much more personal level.

You know, if there’s someone like a fifteen year old who watches this film, I hope that in three years’ time, when they’re in a shopping centre and they see a recruitment centre, they’ll think, “I don’t want to go to war with that boy that I saw on this film, why should I join the army?” Perhaps that is my dream: that this film might influence people in that way. 

But I certainly don’t imagine that David Cameron is going to watch it and feel like he’s learnt something. It’s not really that kind of film. But I do think it’s the kind of film that can get under people’s skin, and probably even subconsciously influence the way you think about Afghanistan. I also have a good friend who’s making a film in Afghanistan, and he calls it “humanist propaganda.” That sums up what my work is about nicely for me.

Tell Spring Not to Come is now open in select UK cinemas. Follow  Saeed Taji Farouky on Twitter @saeedtaji.  

Thomas Humphrey

A freelance film journalist and acting director of the Nottingham Alternative Film Network. This network aims to champion short films, and tries to bring great features which UK distributors overlook to the city.

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Posted on Nov 13, 2015

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