Zarifa Ghafari was only 26 when she became the mayor of Maidan Shar, which made her the youngest mayor in Afghanistan history (and one of the only women to ever hold the position). About a year and a half into her tenure, the Taliban took control of the country with dire consequences for its citizens, women’s rights and Ghafari in particular.
Marcel Mettelsiefen and Tamana Ayazi capture the lead-up to these events in their documentary “In Her Hands,” which held its world premiere at the Toronto film festival. The director duo and Ghafari sat down at TheWrap and Shutterstock’s Interview and Portrait Studio at TIFF to talk about how the film came together and Ghafari’s journey.
Ayazi and Mettelsiefen first began working together in 2017, when the Taliban and the U.S. government entered into peace negotiations.
“We knew that this [was] the right time to start filming because we knew that something will happen to the country, but we didn’t know what,” Ayazi told TheWrap’s Editor and CEO Sharon Waxman.
Their goal quickly became to depict “both visions of a divided country,” said Mettelsiefen. “That’s why we wanted to have the Taliban perspective, to really understand what drives the people — 75% of the population — into the hands of such a movement, knowing, obviously, that we want to have in the focus a strong woman.”
They found their subject in Ghafari, with her now-husband Bashir Mohammadi and bodyguard/driver Massoum serving as representatives of the Afghan people. As for the Taliban, Mettelsiefen said it was surprisingly easy to gain access to interviews and footage.
“I think the interesting part was that they felt so comfortable that they were going to win the war that they started to let journalists in,” he recalled. “The difference was that there had been a lot of journalists going in and would come back with news pieces of 15 minutes and we said, ‘No, we want to go back and follow a character.’”
Doing so allowed the filmmakers to show what Afghan women were up against.
Looking back, Ghafari recounted her personal journey — from her monumental leadership to seeking asylum in Germany, where she now lives — in the context of Afghanistan’s history.
“It’s been more than 50 to 60 years that Afghanistan is just burning in a fire, that we were not part of burning that fire,” she said, adding: “We never [had] a choice.”
Ghafari was only six years old when the Taliban was replaced by new leadership, and she went on to earn an education and become mayor with the dream of opening doors for more women.
The Taliban’s takeover in mid-2021, which led to Ghafari’s forced exit, were devastating on many levels.
“It’s like building up [to the] 10th floor of a beautiful building, then decorating [it all] shiny and then [putting] all the colors and décors and all the things,” she explained. “And then you’re standing at the first [floor] and watching all these 10 floors and enjoying what you did, you know, and suddenly you see each floor is coming down.”
She continued, “When it’s at the first, ground floor, you just need to come out, because it’s your life and your family’s life.”
And yet, as seen in the film, Ghafari summons the courage to go back into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan: “It’s my country, it’s where I belong to, it’s my home.”
With millions of citizens fleeing Afghanistan, Ghafari said she can’t stand by while the Taliban claims to represent her country.
“That country needs change,” she added. “And that change only can come from inside the country.”
“I don’t believe that being a victim is enough to be our whole lives,” Ghafari continued. “We are just not giving up. We are here to stand once again. And that’s why me and Tamana are here to represent that wonderful country and the courageous women of that country.”
Studio sponsors include GreenSlate, Moët & Chandon, PEX and Vancouver Film School.