We talk a lot about our penchant for whipping the realities of life into narrative form, of our “imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images,” as Joan Didion wrote in The White Album. But we often forget why we tend to do this, neglecting to consider the weight of the latter half of Didion’s famous line, that we need these stories to survive. We tell ourselves stories in order that we may have hope and move from one day to the next. This survival tactic is something Afghan-Canadian documentarian Fazila Amiri’s And Still I Sing soberly reminds us of.
The title And Still I Sing carries a glimmering world of hope within it, but at its core this is a documentary not only mapping how hope is built up and maintained blow after blow, it also achingly lets viewers know just how difficult, even if crucial, hope-building can be; how sometimes sharing stories of hope helps to shore up additional hope going forward, because when others help in hope-building, hope is demystified and it comes closer to us from its home within the realm of ideas. It becomes easier to fulfill.
Amiri follows two young women in Kabul, Afghanistan — Zahra Elham and Sadiqa Madadgar — as they strive to win Afghan Star, a voting-based singing competition that is notorious for producing only male winners. Elham and Madadgar initially met as young girls and, when they are reunited in the competition, become swift and close friends; the girls work diligently under the guidance of one of the show’s judges, Aryana Sayeed. Sayeed swiftly emerges before Amiri’s lens as an inimitable force: she is not only a nationally beloved singer, but an activist, too, championing Afghan women’s rights amid a deeply conservative culture. Spliced through Elham and Madadgar’s efforts to show Afghanistan that women should be allowed to follow their dreams, that singing and creation and all manner of art are vital forces that spearhead change and endlessly nourish communities, are Sayeed’s efforts to educate Afghan and American audiences and political figures about the importance of women in peace negotiations aiming to stay the encroaching power of the Taliban.
As a public figure and a strong and vocal woman, Sayeed is always under scrutiny, often coming under intense fire — for her ideological beliefs, her appearance, her behaviour — by right-leaning men who believe, ultimately, that a woman ought not to exist. Sayeed, through her actions as much as through her words, emboldens Elham and Madadgar, who, because of their appearance on TV, also come under fire from men who create YouTube videos demeaning and demoralizing their appearance and existence. In one powerful scene, we follow Sayeed as she makes her way to a mural that depicts her beautiful face adorned in traditional Afghan headdress, and next to it a quote from one of her songs. Her words on the mural have been blackened out, while the words of the male singers who accompany her on the mural remain intact. Sayeed stands tall in front of her desecrated mural and has her fiancé take her photo as she flips the bird with both hands. It’s a mighty and defiant act, as loud as any speech or song she might sing.
Amiri’s lens is as steadfast as it is kind as she follows the women here, depicting them performing immeasurably strong acts — stepping up on a stage to sing, or putting down the phone after watching a video calling for a fatwa against them — while also showing the amount of work it takes to be strong for others. In her personal life, Madadgar goes to the gym regularly and boxes — she wants to show other Afghan women that they have the right to be strong, to fight, to honour their bodies. Madadgar is also going to university and working to pursue graduate studies. Amiri has both Madadgar and Elham speak to the pressure they are under from their families to cease in their creative pursuits. As both girls share stories with each other and with the camera of the pushback within their families, including physical violence in Madadgar’s case, they show the power story-sharing holds, endowing each of them with the confidence and hope to continue on their paths.
As the men around the women in front of Amiri’s gaze continuously berate them, to contest the space the women take up unabashedly in Afghanistan, the women endlessly tell us of their love not only for their fellow citizens, but also for their country. “No place is like one’s own country, we belong here,” they say. Amiri shrewdly but sympathetically shows us the immense and terrifying forces the two girls are working under, and it’s often impossible to not see the women as heroes as they pursue their dreams, with so much of their fate dependent on the Afghan public’s votes, not only in the singing competition but also politically come election day.
In one heartbreaking scene, Madadgar wonders, if she fails, if the public deems her, as a woman, to not be worthy of creating art and singing and following her heart, how she could face her family. How can a person, if they have failed, face their family after they have rebelled and broken taboos — it’s a question I ask myself everyday, and there’s no answer to it. This is something that Amiri understands — an understanding palpable in the close, protective warmth with which she has her camera follow Madadgar.
The singing competition functions as the frame of the film, and as we watch the women move through the various levels of the competition, Amiri also shows us the Taliban’s encroachment as elections loom, with the force’s eventual recapturing of Kabul in 2021. In a moving scene, Madadgar and Elham are together, putting henna on each other’s hands, each one marking her friend with her own initials and her strident friendship. Later this same day, the girls watch TV as the news story of a wedding being suicide-bombed flashes before them; the girls wipe their eyes and we see the sepia of the henna on their hands. They watch another story of a boy being beaten for simply having listened to music. The Taliban believes that music is sinful. When the violent force comes into power, the women’s vibrant lives are upturned.
There is an incommunicable amount of hope that this film contains, and yet when it ends, there seems to be a heavy pall looming over us, over the scroll of the credits. After 20 years of insurgency, the Taliban now hold power, and Amiri checks in with Sayeed, Elham, and Madadgar to see how and whether their music still rings in the air about them. It wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that Madadgar is the only one who has remained within Afghanistan, due simply to an inability to leave because of her distance from airports. Amiri has included a phone-video of Madadgar and in it, her eyes glisten with tears. Madadgar says that she’s grateful that her apartment is distant from the airport because that means she won’t be able to hear too many gunshots. Her voice, while earlier in the film was always deft and certain, cushioned by a lopsided grin and a spark in her eyes, is now soft, shaking. Madadgar is still going to school, but so much remains uncertain for her, as it does for Elham and Sayeed, the latter continuing her activism from abroad.
And Still I Sing is the story of hope in the face of impossible circumstances, but it is also the story of fatigue and fear when hope is lost. Amiri shows us the grim reality of what it looks like when events tumble out of the finite and controlled purview of narrative form and they can no longer be reined in by hope — it looks like watching the news and weeping, sometimes. And Still I Sing is mighty and weighty and important and unmissable. It shows us what it’s like to fight for autonomy and freedom, how difficult it is to exist freely and unabashedly as a woman, how sometimes it can be impossible to find hope, how difficult it is to build.
But because storytelling is hopeful, And Still I Sing is triumphal. The women in this film show us what it looks like to build up hope to get through the onslaught of reality minute by minute; they show us that, for many of us, hope is literally the only thing keeping us going. And Still I Sing shows us the creation of hope and works to remind the rest of us scattered across the world to never look away, to help if we can in any way we can — materially, politically, ideologically. And Still I Sing asks us to help realize hope — to pull it onto the plane of the disparate images.
And Still I Sing is available on VOD and digital starting Nov. 29, 2022.