by Laura Berger – Senior Editor at Women and Hollywood
lizabeth Mirzaei served as director and cinematographer on the BBC’s “The Killing of Farkhunda,” which was nominated for a Royal Television Society Award, and a cinematographer on the Emmy-nominated “What Tomorrow Brings.” Her short films have been shown before world leaders at the Oslo Conference on Women’s Rights.
“Laila at the Bridge” will premiere at the 2018 Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival on April 30. The film is co-directed by Gulistan Mirzaei.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
EM: Laila Haidari is known as the “mother of the addicts” in Kabul. She survived child marriage and her own traumatic past to battle one of the deadliest problems in Afghanistan: heroin addiction. This film follows Laila, as well as several men and women trying to recover from addiction, over a period of three years.
It’s a deeply personal perspective on the global addiction epidemic, following the labor of love of one woman fighting to keep her center alive in the face of physical threats, governmental opposition, and the departure of the international community from Afghanistan.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
EM: I had been living in Kabul with my husband, Gulistan, when we heard about this incredible woman who was single-handedly providing treatment to thousands of people addicted to heroin.
The story resonated with me on a personal level. Before I was born, my mom was the sole female psychologist in a revolutionary new heroin addiction treatment center. It was surreal to see my mom featured in these old newspaper clippings, one woman in a room full of men who much of society likely deemed to be lost causes. This stuck with me, and is part of the reason I was so drawn to Laila.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
EM: I’d like audiences to feel like they’ve walked a little in Laila’s shoes and have a greater understanding of the beauty, tragedy, and complexity in Afghanistan, a country whose fate much of the world is collectively responsible for.
By showing the story of this truly badass and strong woman, I also hope that it dispels the stereotype of the victimized Afghan or Muslim woman. The fact that Laila hasn’t given up in the face of tremendous obstacles will hopefully inspire us all to do the same when faced with our own challenges, wherever we are in the world.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
EM: I think all films have their challenges, and certainly “Laila at the Bridge” was full of them. From facing threats and being followed, to struggling to self-finance three years of filming, to shipping drives out of Afghanistan and losing some footage along the way, we wondered how we were ever going to finish this film!
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
EM: We self-funded the three years of shooting in Kabul by taking every job we were offered. We were grateful to receive the support of the IDFA Bertha Fund for post production in 2014, and then did a crowd funding campaign in 2015. In 2016, we were fortunate to meet our talented producer, Ina Fichman, who moved the film forward and also obtained funding from Canada. We were awarded the Gucci-Tribeca Documentary Fund in 2017 and another grant from the Bertha Foundation, and a number of excellent broadcasters?—?NHK, IKON, SVT, and DR?—?came on board.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at Hot Docs?
EM: I was thrilled to find out that “Laila at the Bridge” would have its North American premiere at Hot Docs. While I’ve never been to the festival before, I’d heard so many great things about it.
I’m also excited that Laila herself will be coming to Hot Docs!
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
EM: I’ve received a lot of good advice over the years, but one particular piece comes to mind right now. I was dealing with a number of particularly challenging situations when I lived in Kabul, and a beautiful African nun there told me to “take courage.”
The fact that she used the word “take” as opposed to “have” really stuck with me. In times of struggle, including the inevitable struggle I face with every film, it helps to remind myself that I already have the strength and courage inside of me and I just need to harness it.
The worst advice I received was probably from a colleague who said, “You can’t have a baby?—?you’re in the middle of your documentary!” At the time, I almost believed it and allowed a man to dictate to me what was and wasn’t possible for me as a female filmmaker. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to that.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
EM: Be persistent. It may often feel like you will never finish your film, and you will likely face some rejection and naysayers, but stay true to your vision for the film to the end.
I’m also a big advocate of having mentors. I’m grateful to have been mentored by a wonderful female director who was both extremely honest and encouraging.
If you happen to become a mother and have an actual baby while you’re simultaneously trying to get your other “baby” off the ground, don’t listen to the naysayers. You can do it.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
EM: That’s a tough question, because there are so many brilliant women-directed films. At the moment, it’s Hanna Polak’s “Something Better to Come,” which follows a girl growing up in a garbage dump outside Moscow over a 14-year period.
While it may sound utterly bleak, Pollak manages to weave in moments of joy and ultimately craft an honest but hopeful film.
W&H: Hollywood and the global film industry are in the midst of undergoing a major transformation. Many women?—?and some men?—?in the industry are speaking publicly about their experiences being assaulted and harassed. What are your thoughts on the #TimesUp movement and the push for equality in the film business?
EM: We’re at a unique moment in time. I hope that all those who have been abused will find the courage to talk about it, and those who have perpetrated abuse on others will have the humility to admit it and, if they’re in a position of power, step down. Women should not be systematically excluded from having a place at the table in the film business.
As I have experienced sexual assault myself, I’m thankful that #TimesUp and #MeToo have helped women feel more empowered to speak up about sexual abuse, and that the fight for gender parity has come to the forefront.