In Her Hands
(USA/Afghanistan, 93 min.)
Dir. Tamana Ayazi, Marcel Mettelsiefen
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
Meet one of the year’s most compelling characters with Zarifa Ghafari. The young woman was only 26 years old when she was elected leader of Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan. That Ghafari was the nation’s youngest woman elected to public office at the time was remarkable. It remains doubly so when witnessing the acts of courage in In Her Hands. This compelling character study uses the plight and strength of one woman to interrogate a nation’s struggle to change. Through Ghafari’s resilience, In Her Hands offers a hopeful portrait of one individual’s ability to inspire collective change.
Directed by Afghan filmmaker Tamana Ayazi and German filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen (an Oscar nominee for Watani: My Homeland), In Her Hands offers little context for Ghafari’s story. Audiences won’t learn much about her past, nor her time in office preceding the film. However, a conventional biography isn’t the aim here. Instead, In Her Hands places the audience firmly within the present tense of Afghanistan as Ghafari uses her platform to advocate for women’s rights. At the same time, President Biden announces the withdrawal of American troops after occupying Afghanistan for 20 years. Everyone knows the American exodus with spark a new fire under the Taliban and take Afghanistan back into the past. In Her Hands captures something in the air as the battle wages between progress and conservatism seen through one woman’s eyes.
In Her Hands gains extraordinary access to Ghafari’s public and private life. The film observes as she takes public speaking engagements and champions equal access to education. Ayazi and Mettelsiefen observe how Ghafari encounters the clash of tradition and modernity at home. Her father, a former leader in the Afghan military, worries about Zarifa’s occupation and, more seriously, her choice to live with her fiancé, Bashir, before marriage. Ghafari holds her ground even with her father. The film illustrates the courage drives Ghafari to assert her right to enjoy her life on her terms.
Ghafari also juggles a relationship with her bodyguard Massoum, with whom she narrowly escapes death after the Taliban attack their car. As In Her Hands counts down to the Americans’ withdrawal, acts of violence become more frequent. Through twists and turns, Ayazi and Mettelsiefen convey the immediate threats that Ghafari and her family face simply because she is a woman with power and a profile.
Training with the Taliban
Before one can cynically dismiss In Her Hands as a merely heroic portrait, the film introduces another thread. In Her Hands wades into Taliban territory to observe Ghafari’s foils. The film doesn’t engage with “both sides-ism,” though, as Ghafari’s actions and words consistently frame the Taliban’s patriarchal might. Mettelsiefen gains intimate perspective from Musafer, a commander in the Taliban who teaches a new generation of young men to suppress women. There’s no judgment, nor are the filmmakers offering the Taliban a platform. Rather, they’re buttressing Zarifa’s story with words straight from the horse’s mouth.
In Her Hand contrasts Ghafari’s fight with Musafar’s preparations for battle. Beyond the ideological talking points, Ayazi and Mettelsiefen offer sharp visual comparisons between the threads. Shots of young boys bumping bullets in the air yield to the image of Ghafari learning how to shoot a rifle while sporting a fashionable set of heels. As the clock ticks down to withdrawal day, tension mounts and Ghafari realises that her time in Afghanistan, no matter the strides she makes, is, for now, limited.
Executive produced by Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, In Her Hands is a stirring portrait of this young woman’s heroism. At the same time, it observes the cyclical nature of turmoil in the Middle East as America messes things up again. While the doc could have been more critical of America leaving behind the disaster it created, that’s arguably the story for another film. Moreover, the images of Ghafari leaving Afghanistan and gathering sand to take a piece of her homeland with her to Germany, are easily the most moving frames of the film. (The filmmakers also assured POV during an interview that the Clintons had no input on the handling of the withdrawal and only saw the film two weeks prior to its premiere.)
When Ghafari leaves, though, In Her Hands takes a jarring turn for another character. The film situates the stories within a collective of disenfranchised men who blame women’s progress for their ills. The film is not so much a portrait of a hero, as it is a powerful portrait of the necessity of heroes who take a stand.
In Her Hands premiered at TIFF 2022 and streams on Netflix this fall.