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The Reel Truth

Kabul to California: A Cinematic Exploration of New Beginnings

Exploring the intersection of journalism and documentary filmmaking.

Michael Werner

February 28th, 2024
Kabul to California: A Cinematic Exploration of New Beginnings

Welcome back to The Reel Truth, our dedicated space where we delve into the world of video journalism and documentary filmmaking with VCers working around the globe. Our video conversations continue, this time with Isabel Soloaga and Ali Mohammady, co-directors of the forthcoming documentary "Growing Up in America: Life After the Taliban." Soloaga is an award-winning filmmaker and photographer who has spent years working in refugee resettlements and telling stories of global migration. Mohammady is an Afghan photographer and filmmaker who was forced to flee Kabul in 2021 after the Taliban’s takeover. Together, they’re crafting an intimate portrait of Mohammady's family as they build a new life in California after seeking asylum in the U.S.

Below, Soloaga and Mohammady shared insights about what makes for a strong collaborative filmmaking relationship, the importance of weaving hope into the fabric of their narrative, and the transformative power of storytelling to connect us all.

Isabel Soloaga behind the camera filming.
Ali Mohammady zooming in on his camera.
I want to show the world how hard it is to leave your country and come to another, and also how to make a new life, a better life in another country with a new culture, new people and everything.
—Ali Mohammady
Growing Up in America: Life After the Taliban poster

Michael Werner: You two are collaborating on a feature documentary project called Growing Up in America, Life After the Taliban. This is a very personal story. Why did you want to tell it?

Ali Mohammady: The documentary is about my life, and my family life. It’s about the fall of Afghanistan in 2021 when the Taliban took over and I had to leave my country. It was very painful for me to leave my country and come to another country. But I wanted to show the world that it is not only my experience, it's the experience of millions of Afghans who were forced to leave their country.

My brother also took part in this documentary. He came to the United States in 2015. He used to work with the US forces back in Afghanistan. And after that, his life was in danger from the Taliban and he also had to move to the United States. So I want to show the world how hard it is to leave your country and come to another, and also how to make a new life, a better life in another country with a new culture, new people and everything.

Isabel, Ali, and Ali's family gathering in Sacremento for Valentine's Day 2022.
We see a lot about the atrocities that happen during war and during the escape and it's a lot of fear and violence. But we don’t hear a lot about what happens afterwards.
—Isabel Soloaga

Isabel Soloaga: We see a lot about the atrocities that happen during war and during the escape and it's a lot of fear and violence. But we don’t hear a lot about what happens afterwards. It was really important for us to focus on moving forward and tell a story of hope and optimism, especially because we're highlighting Ali's nieces, Masoma and Zahra, who are just the most amazing, super powerful young women. They're so dynamic and vibrant and I want to have that energy in the final film. They're just hilarious, you know, because they're just normal girls who are fighting and pinching each other and calling each other's names. But they also played a really important role in getting Ali and his family out of Kabul.

Ali's nieces Masoma (far left), Zahra (front midddle), Murtaza (peace signs) with their cousins while filming.
Ali and his niece Masoma set up cameras ahead of a film day as Zahra looks on.

MW: How did you two become filmmaking collaborators?

IS:Ali and I met two and a half years ago in Fort Bliss, Texas, after he was evacuated from Kabul. We met on a lunch break. We started talking and I realized he was a photographer and a filmmaker as well. I'd been working in emergency response for like six years already, working with Afghans from France and in the US. I had so many friends who were reeling in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover that I felt like I needed to share what was going on. And I didn't really know what else to do besides making videos because that's what I love. And then meeting Ali, everything just felt like it was falling into place to make a feature film.

AM: After we met in Texas, we just started our first conversation on chat and Facebook. And then when I came to Sacramento in December 2021 we met each other again. Then we discussed a little bit about the story of the documentary and how we want to shoot it. We officially started our filming, I believe, January 2022.

The barracks in Fort Bliss, Texas, which housed many Afghan evacueess.
Isabel Soloaga and Ali Mohammady in San Francisco for a day of filming ahead of the completion of their short film.

MW: Isabel, at the beginning of this documentary, you were still working in humanitarian emergency response. How did that work enable you to make this documentary – were you able to do any kind of documenting of the conditions you were seeing?

IS: My work in humanitarian emergency response is what brought me to filmmaking. The resiliency that you see day-to-day in this line of work, and the kindness and generosity of the individuals you meet, changes you. The moment I learned that the Taliban took over Kabul, I was so afraid for my friends' families and people I knew there. I did not know what to do, so I started editing videos I had made of my friends' families. I didn't set out wanting to make this film. I felt like I had to make this film. I felt a responsibility, having seen what was going on firsthand, to help share and uplift these stories.

At times, my professional role as a humanitarian responder and the limitations that can bring was frustrating for me as a photographer and as a filmmaker. I'd worked on films before about different migration situations for Migrant Voice in London and other organizations. When I worked with the International Rescue Committee in Sacramento, I was making videos and doing communication for them. When I got to Fort Bliss, obviously, the first thing I wanted to do is take out my camera. But they had really strict rules about staff members not being able to take any photos or videos. I actually was not able to take any photos the whole time that I was there, which was heartbreaking for someone who has this instinct to want to document. But luckily I met Ali on my lunch break and Ali started sending me these amazing photos from base. That's when I got really excited about making this documentary.

Ali's photos of refugee children gathering food from dining halls in Fort Bliss.
A photo inside Fort Bliss of volleyball nets the military set up for the children.
I think it's really important demystify the immigration process and to know that people who did get evacuated don't necessarily have the right to remain here indefinitely.
—Isabel Soloaga

MW: The asylum process in the United States is something that’s out of sight, out of mind for most people in this country. Is that something you wanted to explore in the film?

AM: Yeah, when I moved to the United States or when other people come here, we start applying for asylum to get permanent status, to be able to stay in the United States. And we can’t go back to our countries because they are not safe for us. I’ve applied for asylum and I'm still hoping to be approved by the government to be able to stay here and continue my life here.

IS: I think it's really important to demystify the immigration process and to know that people who did get evacuated don't necessarily have the right to remain here indefinitely. And people like Ali and his family still have to apply and to kind of fight for their right to stay here. For a lot of people, there's not really an option to go back to their home country. And with the United States playing the role that it did in the war, it’s important to provide pathways for people to be safe and to support the people, like Ali’s family, who served in the US military at great risk to themselves to try to fight for democracy and peace in Afghanistan.

Isabel interviewing Ali for the documentary.

MW: When working with refugee communities and telling their stories, there's obviously a big power imbalance between the storytellers and the participants in the film. I'm curious, how do you manage those power imbalances? What are some of the things that you keep in mind as you're working on these stories?

IS: I think of myself kind of as a bridge and as someone who's there to translate in a way what people go through and to provide a platform for them. Ali has his own voice and in the film you get to hear a lot about it. That's my goal is to kind of create opportunities for people to share their stories.

AM: When I started to do the documentary with Isabel, I thought that we needed (the audience) to feel like they're exactly there with the people in the film, in the same room and talking and listening to their experience. We decided to make it very easy for people to understand the experiences that (my family and I) had.

IS: I think what it comes back to is communication and respect and just kind of continuing to come back to the table and say, what is the thing that's most important for people to know? What do we want people to come away from this film with and just keep having conversations to make sure that communication is open as much as possible and we’re double and triple checking to make sure we're hitting what's important.

A collaborative editing session at Ali’s cousin’s home in Sacramento in spring 2022.

MW: For folks out there who are making similarly sensitive films, what’s a big lesson you learned or some advice you would share with them?

IS: I think that it's often the most sensitive subjects that need sharing, and I don't know if anyone feels like they completely know how to tell these hard political and personal stories. But understand that you won't know how to make the film until you've done it: start from a place of knowing you don't know and jump in with as much openness, sensitivity and awareness as you can. To steal advice from a friend, we have to lean on our good intentions.

When you’re making a documentary, you develop personal relationships and a comfort level with the people you're following. It's that mutual understanding that allows you to go deeper and create something really unique. For everyone, and especially with children and people who are more vulnerable for whatever reason, it's critical to establish communication, check in with them regularly, offer breaks, and learn to recognize what is healthy for them and what is not. Take time off camera to get to know people and understand what it is they want to share about their life, and things they might not want to bring up.

Be transparent. Be bold in trying and willing to fall short again and again. Usually you can backtrack, reshoot, and try again. You'd be surprised at how resilient and forgiving people are.

AM: When I see other filmmakers working on immigration stories, I am motivated by the fact that there are people out there who do not sit quietly and remain silent in the face of all these troubles. They want others to take action and end these inequalities. I would like to say to those filmmakers that they should not get tired of what they are doing, you are the awakeners of society.

Isabel takes a selfie as they set up and film an interview about how they made this film together
Ali operates the drone as they film his nieces and family friends settling into their new life in a park in Sacramento.

MW: One last question that we like to ask all of our guests. What's the best piece of advice that you've received in your career or in life?

IS: One of my good friends told me, “You don't know how to do it until you've done it.” And I think that has been the thing that kind of lets me keep going sometimes, or just to kind of tackle the impossible project. It's really easy to feel like, Oh, I don't know how to do this, and so I'm not gonna do it. But you actually never know how to do something until it's done. And I had no idea what I was getting into really when I decided I was gonna make a feature film. Ali and I thought we’d be done last year. But just for everyone kind of setting out, like you're not gonna know how to do it at the beginning. That's the reality and only by going through the process of making it, are you ever going to learn how to do it. There's no way around it.

AM: A piece of advice that my dad always told to me is, “Do not start a project that you don't like, but if you start it, do it in the best way.” So I'm always thinking about completing work in the best way and putting all my effort into it. When we started the documentary, we wanted to complete it in the best way. Even if it takes a long time, if it takes a lot of effort, we do our best to complete it in the best way.

MW: That’s great advice! Thank you both for joining us. I can’t wait to see the finished documentary when it hits the festivals next year.

IS: Thank you so much for having us. It's really an honor to be able to take part and have a conversation today.

AM: Yeah, thank you so much, Michael.

Have an idea for a Reel Truth guest? Send Michael a note directly!

Field Notes is edited by Melinda Thompson.

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