In 2006, Waise Azimi flew into Kabul to film a documentary. He knew the subject he wanted: the training of Afghan army recruits. But he didn't know how to get access. So Azimi, an Afghan-American based in the Philippines, called Michael Tucker, who made the Iraq documentary Gunner Palace. Tucker was dismayed that his phone number could be easily found on the Internet, but told Azimi what to do: call the US-led coalition.
Two weeks later Waise (sounds like "wise") Azimi was an embedded journalist at the Kabul Military Training Center, filming the creation of the 55th Battalion of the Afghan National Army under the supervision of coalition forces, mostly US soldiers. The resulting film, Standing Up, vividly chronicles the struggles these men face during basic training. It makes its Taiwan debut tomorrow night as the opening film for this year's Urban Nomad Film Fest.
"I think the US military's new relationship with the press, the goal is to, instead of pushing them away, to bring them very close and to make them in a very sort of informal way a part of their order of battle," Azimi said in a phone interview on Tuesday from Manila.
The purpose of giving a journalist embedded status, he said, is "not necessarily to monitor or control what you see, but to control what you think you see. [When] you put a flack jacket on, you put a gun in [a journalist's] hand, you draw this reporter into some sort of camaraderie with coalition soldiers … . He's less likely to write a damning article about the guy he's been living with for months."
The son of an official at the Asian Development Bank, Azimi, 27, grew up in Manila and graduated with a degree in sociology from a liberal arts college in New York state. He shot his first film, Afghanistan After, about the lives of ordinary Afghans a year after the fall of the Taliban, while still a university student. He got the idea to do Standing Up after reading Absolutely American, a book that follows cadets at the US Military Academy in West Point.
Azimi said obtaining permission to film US and Afghan officers and non-commissioned officers training recruits was "surprisingly easy." Following Tucker's advice, he called the US embassy in Kabul, which connected him with the Camp Eggers public affairs office. They asked to see his proposal and scheduled a meeting two weeks later. At the meeting they told him they were waiting for a legal review, but otherwise their only request was that he send a copy of the film when it was finished. Azimi could film everything except Special Forces troops and base security.
The process was "really straight-forward and hassle-free," he said, because "there isn't that much of a media presence" in Afghanistan compared to Iraq. "They want people to tell stories," he said.
Still, as a member of the media, Azimi encountered "a lot of initial mistrust" from soldiers. "There was a lot talk about liberal media and how journalists only talk about the bad things," he said.
Azimi feels that perception is misguided: "On the balance of things, I would argue that, if a reader is mindful enough, they can read enough sources to put together a fairly accurate picture of what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan - as long as they're not just relying on Fox News or the New York Times."
Surprisingly, he was only told to stop filming twice during the four months he spent documenting the 55th battalion. The first was when a US drill sergeant was having a conversation with his Afghan counterpart. The soldier felt Azimi was undermining his ability to control and extend his authority over the situation.