Hollywood Film Festival 2015: Frame by Frame, by David Bax
In a selfie culture that uploads hundreds of millions of images to Facebook every day, we take photography for granted. Under Taliban rule, though, it was banned in Afghanistan. The very act of taking a picture was a crime. Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli’s Frame by Frame documents those Afghanis who have been revitalizing the practice since the Taliban were overthrown. From a professor who teaches the next generation of photographers to a woman who takes pictures of female life in the country that only a woman could take in a Muslim country to a Pulitzer Prize winner photojournalist, these individuals prove that a photograph is more than just a picture. It’s a way for a society to account for itself, to be represented and to say that, at the very least, we exist.
As befits a documentary on such a subject, Frame by Frame is beautiful to look at. The cinematography (by the directors) exhibits a professional’s understanding of composition. There are lovely shots of the countryside and harrowing shots of life among the homeless and destitute in cities like Kabul and Herat. Even the on-the-fly moments are composed with maximum emphasis on ease of information and it’s presentation, while always remaining interesting to look at.
Through the varied work of the subjects, we end up with an overview of present-day life in Afghanistan. Bombings are still a threat and some of the journalists take that and other breaking news topics as their focus. Others train their cameras on the country’s enormous problem with drug addiction or the increasing issue of self-immolation among women who see no other way out of existence of abuse and/or servitude. But we also see slices of life such as the married photographer couple who cover a pop concert and then stop by a convenience store to rent The Hangover Part II on Blu-ray on the way home.
In one of the film’s most powerful moments, the above-mentioned female photographer flips through a book on the subject of Afghanistan before the Taliban. She holds up a picture from the 1970s of three young women, students by the look of the books they are carrying, walking and laughing together with their hair uncovered, wearing skirts that would have been perfectly in fashion in any American city at the time. Later, that same photographer will visit a hospital to document some of the women who have burned themselves but she is shut down – first politely and then more sternly – by a doctor. He doesn’t stop her because of his own religious beliefs but simply because he values his life and those of his patients and, if the wrong person found out about these pictures, he could be beat or killed or the hospital could be destroyed by zealots. Frame by Frame shows us that Afghanistan is not a nation of backwards extremists but a nation largely composed of reasonable, compassionate people who are being held hostage by those backwards extremists. Photographs help us learn of their stories by simply accounting for their existence.