The movie FireDancer is the story of Afghan refugees in New York City, mourning the loss of their native culture as they struggle to assimilate in America. But as the film was being made, another story of promise and tragedy was unfolding off-screen in the lives of the young filmmakers.
FireDancer takes place in New York before the attacks of September 11 and in 1970s Afghanistan. This year, the film was chosen as Afghanistan’s first-ever nomination to the Academy Awards.
Jawed Wassel, the writer and director of FireDancer, fell in love with movies as a boy growing up in Kabul. Like thousands of others, he fled Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979, eventually arriving in New York City to study film. After graduating, he worked as a stockbroker. But Jawed was always an artist first, says his brother Khaled, and in his mid-thirties, he made a break.
“One day he came home,” Khaled recalls, “and he said, ‘I’m a writer and I’d like to make movies. And I don’t like to work in an investment company.’ So he said, ‘I quit, I left the job.’ And he started working on the FireDancer script.”
Khaled Wassel believed in his brother, and supported him as he wrote the film, found his cast and began to shoot. Jawed Wassel wanted to make a movie that showed the divided souls of Afghan refugees, young and old, in the United States, but especially those who had to leave their native country before they were old enough to know it fully.
As the Soviets invade Afghanistan, a young boy’s father sends him away to save him. The boy, Haris, ends up an artist in America, haunted by memories and visions, and not sure who he is or where he belongs.
“I had so much in common with this character,” says Baktash Zaher-Khadem, who plays Haris as a young adult. “Because I am that character -- except that I don’t have nightmares.”
It was the first professional acting job for Mr. Zaher-Khadem, who had trained as a pilot. His sister, Vida Zaher-Khadem, who had been studying film, also worked on FireDancer right out of college.
“My mother told me she’d heard of someone who was trying to make an Afghan film,” Ms. Zaher-Khadem said in an interview in the New York apartment she shares with her brother. “I’d never heard of such a thing and so I was really intrigued and I wanted to meet the person and find out what they’re doing, and that’s when I met Jawed Wassel.
Vida Zaher-Khadem became associate director and worked with Jawed Wassel for three years. In July 2001, when shooting on FireDancer was complete, the crew traveled to Afghanistan to film a documentary that Vida was directing and that Jawed was helping to produce.
They returned to the United States just before September 11. By October 3, 2001, a rough cut of FireDancer was complete. On that night, the day before a planned screening, Jawed Wassel, 42, was murdered by one of the producers, Nathan Powell, over a business dispute. Powell was arrested the next day as he attempted to dispose of Mr. Wassel’s body. He pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter early this summer, and will be sentenced in August.
“It’s almost a tragedy you cannot grasp. I cannot grasp it yet,” says Vida Zaher-Khadem. “And when people talk about the writer-director being dead, I feel like they’re talking about someone else, it’s not him they’re talking about because, ‘of course, he’s not dead.’ Here's a man who left Afghanistan during the Russian war, made it to America, went to school, studied really hard, had a dream, went for that dream, and really wanted to do things for the community and for Afghans. And in a way, ironically, though he's not here, I think his film has done that. It has really brought Afghans who've never talked, to sit together at the same table and say, ‘Oh, it's his film, I want to do this for it.’”
After Jawed Wassel’s death, the FireDancer crew worked to complete the film he had created. As the credits show, Afghan-Americans of many backgrounds acted in FireDancer, Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims together. Baktash Zaher-Khadem says their differences were hardly noticed. “I never, ever thought about that. I mean, when you get out of Afghanistan, I think that’s the first thing you lose, whether you’re from the North or from the South. Because when you’re outside, you’re Afghan.”
The film has been shown to general audiences, including a screening at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in May.
But unsurprisingly, as Vida Zaher-Khadem says, it’s Afghan audiences who react the most strongly, seeing themselves on screen for the first time. “Art is like a mirror,” she says, “it reflects your past, who you were. There is nothing in Afghanistan that reflects the past of who we are. I really didn’t know anything about who I was.”
Baktash Zaher-Khadem also left Afghanistan as a child -- and like the character he plays in Firedancer, grew up only half-aware that he felt he didn’t fit in anywhere. “The fact that I came from a different culture, I didn’t understand that. The whole thing was very confusing and very foggy and very much the epitome of being lost. And I think there are a lot of Afghans who are lost and when they see this film, FireDancer, they’re going to say, “oh, this is normal.”
Afghans in Afghanistan respond to the film, too. Last year, the FireDancer crew returned to Kabul and held packed screenings at two venues. One was the Ghazi Stadium, which the Taleban had used as an execution ground. The other venue was the Park Cinema, the movie theater where Jawed Wassel first fell in love with movies as a boy.
All film excerpts and Afghanistan footage courtesy of Petunia Productions.