Many people are familiar with the Wakefield Doc Fest’s month of film in February. In the past few years, the organizers have set aside a weekend in October for a mini-festival. This year they are featuring four films from around the world. Here’s the lineup. (For more information please see wakefielddocfest.ca).
Laila at the Bridge: Quebec producer Ina Fichman has brought this film to Wakefield. The movie features a truly heroic Afghan woman named Laila Haidari, who has survived her own traumas and works to keep open a drug treatment centre and restaurant staffed by recovering addicts in Kabul, Afghanistan. Oct. 18 at 7:30 p.m.
Nomad: In the Steps of Bruce Chatwin. This film by the legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog looks at the life of the adventurous travel writer Bruce Chatwin who died from AIDS some 30 years ago. Chatwin and Herzog were friends and this film is billed as a tribute “to a life of restlessness and wandering, borders and exile.” It’s also a portrait of two kindred spirits, author and filmmaker. Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Buddy is by the filmmaker Heddy Honigmann, who offers heart-warming portraits of six service dogs and their human companions. The dogs help open the world up to the humans they work with. Oct. 20 at 2 p.m.
Before the festival opens on Oct. 18, ARTSFILE spoke with the Canadian producer Ina Fichman about her project Laila at the Bridge. Here is an edited version of her answers.
A. I began my career as a journalist for CBC and always loved documentary film. I directed and produced my first documentary in 1990 when I followed the Montreal Yiddish Theatre Group to the former Soviet Union. Over the years, I have produced documentaries, narrative features and TV series. I am always driven by great stories and working with talented directors.
Q. What is your focus today?
A. Today, our focus at Intuitive Pictures is creative documentaries and interactive, digital productions. I am very excited about the new forms of storytelling that we are seeing in VR and web documentaries.
Q. What is the role of a producer?
A. As a producer, I am always involved in a project from early days, for example, in development and the many years it takes to get the film seen by audiences. I call myself ‘the keeper of the vision’ — ensuring that the creative vision is sustained throughout all stages of production and distribution.
Q.How did you get involved with the film Laila at the Bridge?
A. I met Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei in Los Angeles a few years ago. They had already filmed a good portion of the film and I was very taken by the footage. We recut the trailer. The we went and pitched the film at a Hot Docs Deal Maker event and I was able to secure a number of international sales there. The film was edited by a Canadian, Andrea Henriquez, and we did all of the post-production in Montreal.
Q. Why did you get involved?
A. I got involved because of the unique access that the filmmakers had to Laila and to her world. And, I thought that Elizabeth’s cinematography was brilliant.
Q. Who is Laila Haidari?
A. She is a tough former child bride who has faced a lot of misery in her 40 years – and kicked it like a bad habit. Today she revisits misery regularly as she mingles with drug-addicts, huddled under a Kabul bridge. She encounters corpses. And she encounters the near-dead — malnourished and sick drug addicts she tries to convince to accompany her to the sanctuary she has created called ‘Mother’s home’.
She is working to help about 2,000 heroin addicts in the world’s largest opium-producing country.
Laila lost her children when she left her abusive husband and only now sees them occasionally. Her brother Hakim (who is now her partner in the Narcotics Anonymous rehab they run) struggled with a 25 year long heroin addiction himself. But she is tirelessly upbeat in the face of more setbacks than victories.
She faces dismissive government officials who pay lip service to helping her. The restaurant she runs to finance the project barely pays its bills. And she gets death threats from drug dealers. And the addicts often fail to pull themselves up. They are former soldiers, poets, doctors, professors, students and journalists whose lives have come to ruin.
Laila At The Bridge follows her as she goes on TV debate shows, and meets with anti-drug government ministry officials whose jobs would be threatened by any success in curing addiction.
Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei met Laila during their eight years living and working in Afghanistan. They followed Laila under the bridge (where the addicts hang out) and into Kabul’s darker corners. They were watched by drug dealers and compromised police.
“When Laila crossed over that infamous bridge, known as pol-e-sokht — which means ‘burned bridge’ — she found her life’s calling, Elizabeth said to me. “She was profoundly changed by the sight of people living in a putrid river, injecting heroin amongst the corpses. She is an amazing woman with an immense drive, who was inspired by Mother Teresa. She sees herself as offering a light, a path out of the darkness. But it’s up to the individual to keep to that path and stay clean.”
“She is a transformative person,” Gulistan added. “She does not allow the drug addicts to view themselves as victims, but as survivors, in control of their lives. We support her dream that someday, Afghanistan will no longer be associated with drugs.”
Q. What did you learn from being involved in this project?
A. I learned about a different side of Afghanistan … and the tenacity and courage of one woman.
Q. It’s a tough subject. The images of the addicts are distressing. Did you participate in the project because you wanted to help the situation?
A. Yes, I get involved in documentaries because I want to make a difference. I believe that strong, accessible documentary films can do this.
Q. What do you hope happens as a result of the film?
That more people hear about Laila and support her work.