Imagine Otherwise: Wazhmah Osman on Autoethnography & Documentary Filmmaking

Wazhmah Osman, Imagine Otherwise blog image

Imagine Otherwise: Wazhmah Osman on Autoethnography & Documentary Filmmaking

October 19, 2016 Podcast

How can we tell a story that is ours, but also belongs to millions of others? How can documentary film and engaged scholarship portray the realities of war?

In this episode of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach chats with guest Wazhmah Osman about the politics of memoir, what the trauma of war does to archival research, and her version of imagining otherwise. Wazhmah’s critically acclaimed documentary film, Postcards from Tora Bora, recounts Wazhmah’s return to her childhood home of Kabul, Afghanistan nearly 20 years after her family fled Cold War violence.

We invite you to check out the podcast episode, as well as our show notes and highlights below.

Guest: Wazhmah Osman

Wazhmah Osman is a filmmaker and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies and Production at Temple University. For the 2016-2017 academic year, she is a visiting fellow at New York University’s Center for Media, Culture, and History. Her research focuses on the politics of representation and visual culture of The War On Terror, and in her forthcoming book she analyzes the impact of international funding and cross border media flows on the national politics and culture of Afghanistan.

Her critically acclaimed documentary film Postcards from Tora Bora traces Wazhmah’s return to her childhood home of Kabul, Afghanistan nearly 20 years after her family fled Cold War violence. In the film, armed only with rapidly fading memories, Wazhmah recruits some unlikely and reluctant guides to put together the pieces of her past. On an alternately sad and humorous quest, she encounters confused cabbies, the enthusiastic former minister of the tourism bureau, a museum director that archives land mines, and a group of angry street vendors. As she talks about in our interview, the film depicts a strange intersection where cultures clash, identities are mistaken, and the past violently collides with the present.

We chatted about:

  • The evolution of Postcards from Tora Bora from traditional documentary to a more experimental narrative film (03:30)
  • National and personal archives in the context of war (09:15)
  • Finding a balance between objectivity and personal emotions in autobiographical work (16:00)
  • How to tell a story that is yours but is also shared by other people (20:20)
  • Combining filmmaking with political activism and academic training (23:00)
  • The importance of ethnographic interviews to a democratic media (30:15)
  • Wazhmah’s version of imagining otherwise (38:30)

Takeaways, in Wazhmah’s words:

  • On the destruction of personal and national archives: “The loss of all kinds of things happens, from human life that disrupts families, to all kinds of cultural and national institutions that people have spent generations building up are in many cases burned or bombed or destroyed to build a new kind of post-war culture.”
  • On the experimental nature of her film: “It was a difficult experience for me because it was uncomfortable. I had to go from being more of the filmmaker to being the subject of the film. It became like an inter-referential, reflective kind of film.”
  • On the balance between objective and narrative work: “We have to keep a distance from the subject matter, be objective, be critical, and rationally analyze the pieces. If you’re too stepped in the subject matter, it’s difficult to keep that objective distance and analytical mindset, but you have to feel it first.”
  • On telling a story that’s yours but also shared by others: : “I wanted to be sure the story wasn’t just going to be representative of my family’s story, but that other Afghans could relate to it as well. 50 percent of the population has become refugees, and if you include internal displacement, it’s three quarters of the country”
  • On the development of activism: “If you’ve experienced the injustices of war, there’s no way that you can be pro-war, or not call out when you see warlordism or war hawks today drumming up the beats of anger and rage and racism so that they can muster more war”
  • On ethnographic interviews: “Ethnographic interviews are very relevant if you want to get at the beat and pulse of a country. If you have good interview skills and you’re building relationships with people and they trust you, then they share from the heart.”
  • On imagining otherwise: “We the people who don’t have capital and power and powerful institutions on our side, [must] realize what we do have on our side is each other, and that we’re going to build alliances across races and genders and sexualities and nationalities and fight for one another.”

More from Wazhmah:

Projects and people discussed:

About Imagine Otherwise:

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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About the author

Priyanka Kaura: Priyanka is a Marketing Associate at Ideas on Fire, as well as an education reformer in New York City who frequently traverses the private and public sectors to promote educational equity.