A film that “epitomizes the liberal arts experience,” Frame by Frame explores the dangerous life of a photojournalist in Afghanistan, a country only recently freed from the restrictive rule of the Taliban, but that still feels the group’s lingering threat. Through beautiful cinematography that flows seamlessly with the photographs taken by the four photojournalists the story follows, Frame by Frame captures a panoramic view of what life is like in Afghanistan. By seeing both the bad and the good of the country, the real and true story of these people and this nation comes through.
Early on in the film, dramatic tension is set in the off-center, diagonal camera angles following a silhouetted figure surrounded by bright lights, and confused voices ask the question of what has happened. After learning that there was a suicide bombing, the storyline cuts to faded images of destruction superimposed with text that tells the story of Afghanistan’s subjection to overpowering foreign rule—first from Russia, and then from the Taliban. During the Taliban’s rule, all photography was banned; no one was allowed to have even a picture on the wall, for fear of being beaten. After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, press began to emerge; but with the U.S. troops returning to America, the still young journalism industry has had to fight on their own to give the news.
Frame by Frame sets up this background of the difficulties of trusting the press and of trusting photojournalism and follows the first group of such journalists to take up the call for telling the real story. Najibullah’s position as a teacher of photojournalism frames the film’s narrative, weaving scenes of his lessons to his students that then become reflected in the other journalist’s stories. Farzana is the only woman photojournalist, and because of her position, she actively argues through her photographs for women’s voices that men have too often silenced. Massoud, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, tells his story of running toward the conflict and the danger rather than away, and his famous photograph becomes one of the most heart wrenching moments of the film. Lastly the film follows Wakil as he photographs the social problems within his country, but doing so with a kindness and a patient, gentle nodding toward social change in his striking and clear photographs. Frame by Frame weaves these four photojournalist’s stories together through moments both touching and ordinary, and in moments dramatic and emotional, like when Massoud returns to the place where he took his award-winning photograph, telling the story of that eventful day.
By focusing on these four photojournalists, the film offers a steadfast understanding of what photojournalism means: as told by Najibullah, it is “an international language” that expresses the realities of society, by defending the country with a camera and lighting up the “dark corners of realities that people can’t see.” Indeed, Frame by Frame is a hopeful, light-filled film, despite its focus on the dreadful and dark fears that plague many lives in Afghanistan. In the discussion following the film, director Mo Scarpelli offered this insight on what the four photojournalists are trying to do: “Part of the work [of photojournalism] is showing violence; even if painful or if it looks bad, it is good to tell people about it.”
Scarpelli said that Farzana, Massoud, Wakil, and Najibullah were all trying to show people that presenting the truth of a situation, no matter how bad it is, is important and vital for social change to happen. And Frame by Frame emphasizes this point clearly throughout the film, from the mouths of the photojournalists themselves, and from the visual photographs and scenes that flowed from one story to the next. A truly beautiful film with a well-balanced but still emotional narrative, Frame by Frame is a film that demands watching.
The Southern Circuit Film Series continues next semester with the film screening of Art and Craft in February.