Film Reviews

Review: ‘Laila at the Bridge’

Hot Docs 2018


Laila at the Bridge
(Canada/Afghanistan, 96 min)
Dir. Gulistan Mirzaei and Elizabeth Mirzaei
Program: The Good Fight (North American Premiere)

A young mother in a traditional Afghanistan scarf and shawl speaks to the camera as she prepares a syrupy mixture in a bottle for her crying baby. The baby begins to suckle, and quickly falls asleep. No wonder: the drink contains opium, the prevalence of which has been a secondary effect of the interminable war there.

In the last few years, a number of news stories have focused on the Pul-i-Sokhta bridge over the Kabul River in western Kabul, a dark underpass where hundreds of heroin addicts gather to fix, watched by curious passing workers and students. The addicts’ presence is a direct result of the ongoing war, as programs of crop eradication have been abandoned because of a lack of foreign funding and insurgent attacks. Thousands of farmers have returned to opium production, producing 90% of the world’s heroin supply and entrapping about 11% of Afghanistan’s population in drug use.

In the midst of this unforgiving world, Laila at the Bridge focuses on an irrepressible character, a roundly built woman in her mid-thirties named Laila Haidari, who has taken on the task of saving as many of the drug users as she can. This up-close documentary on her work is directed by Los Angeles-based filmmakers, Gulistan Mirzaei, who is Afghani, and his partner Elizabeth Mirzaei (who have directed short films for BBC and Al-Jazeera) and produced by Montreal’s Ina Fichman, with Canadians Andrea Henriquez on editing and Jessica Moss on music. The filmmakers’ familiarity with Kabul makes for a refreshing lack of self-consciousness, as they take us behind the scenes in political meetings or among the wretched of the city.

While the bridge of the title is a real place, the title echoes Lord Macaulay’s popular Victorian poem, Horatius at the Bridge, about a hero single-handedly preventing the sacking of Rome, but also the familiar metaphor of rehab as a bridge between addiction and sobriety.

The crew unobtrusively follows Laila on her daily rounds, moving among garbage and passed-out bodies under the bridge in her ballet slippers, seeking out converts. She brings the users to the separate shelters for men and women, introduces them to their new quarters and the house rules, and then makes the rounds trying to raise money. The clinics, which she runs with her recovered addict older brother, have no access to methadone or medical treatment. Instead, they use makeshift methods: ice-cold baths, Narc-Anon group therapy, encouragement and scolding. The inmates, many of whom are older than her, humbly call her “mother” (her centre is a three-room compound called “Mother’s Camp”) offer shame and gratitude.

The backstory and context are filled in with interviews: Laila, an Afghanistan refugee in Iran, was married at 12 to a man with whom she had three children. She divorced him at 21, got a university education and moved back to her Afghanistan, forced to leave her children behind. Moved by the plight of Kabul’s addicts, she decided to take action. One of the ways she tries to support her clinics is by running a restaurant, staffed by recovering drug-users. When customers are scared away by renewed violence from the Taliban, she has to lobby harder with the local politicians, unabashedly calling them out for their complicity with the drug traffickers.

One striking scene sees her confronting a group of young men at the bridge, gawking at the addicts below them. She upbraids them, and when they answer back, she grabs a stick and confronts them, declaring, “I am more badass than all of you put together.”

Is there really a Dali word for “bad-ass”? If so, Laila must be the embodiment of it. By attacking the drug trade, she risks death. In one scene, she describes how a man attempted to strangle her in her room, but she managed to break his grip and grab the shotgun she keeps for self-protection. She points the gun at the camera to demonstrate and the filmmakers shrink back. You understand in a flash the respect she demands and how motivated the filmmakers were to do her story justice.

Laila at the Bridge screens:
-Mon, Apr. 30 at 6:30 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Tues, May 1 at 10:30 AM the Isabel Bader
-Fri, May 4 at 8:30 PM at Scotiabank

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.

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