Zany and heartfelt documentary about two Danish pilots who fly to Afghanistan against all odds to help empower a young Afghan girl
At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in April 2006, one of my favorite films was "Smiling in a War Zone". As luck would have it, this and another of my favorites, "I for India", both won awards at the Festival; Smiling in a War Zone was selected to receive $5000 as the film that "best portrays women in leadership".
In 2002, Danish filmmakers, Simone Aaberg Kærn and partner Magnus Bejmar (both of whom I met at the Festival, along with their energetic infant), are inspired by reading a story in the Danish press about a 16-year-old Afghan girl named Farial who dreams of being a fighter pilot. Performance artist Simone had flight training under her belt and convinces her (slightly) more practical partner to do what they can to try to meet Farial and take her for a flight.
The grounding of planes right after September 11th hits Simone as a perhaps necessary but sad strike against freedom. What better way, they feel, to free the skies than by flying to share their freedom with a teenager in a country recovering from years of terrible injustice.
In this documentary that they made of their efforts, the couple pulls together enough money to purchase a small "Donald Duck" Piper Colt airplane from 1961 made out of canvas. They plan to fly it 6000km (more than 3700 miles) from Copenhagen to Kabul. The technical issues of flying the plane such a distance and over mountains taller than the plane is meant to fly at, as well as the inevitable repairs, prove, surprisingly, to be relatively easy to address compared to the bureaucratic hoops that they find that they have to try to jump through in order to make this humanitarian mission happen. Intent on the urgency of flying into a war zone to bring their unsolicited act of kindness, they scramble to get visas to hop through countries en route to Afghanistan.
Their biggest challenge becomes the overwhelming amount of red tape that they find with getting permission from the Americans to enter Afghan air space. They end up overstaying their 7-day Iranian visit and don't know what to do - they can't stay and don't have visas for neighboring countries. The Afghans welcome them and readily have given permission to visit any domestic airport once they enter the country, but first Magnus and Simone must negotiate the seeming hopeless situation of getting American permission to just enter the airspace. How they boldly do that, as well as their mechanical and cultural experiences en route, makes for a fascinating story.
After fifty hours in the air and thirty-three landings, they do (illegally) make it to Afghanistan, and are warmly received by Farial and her family. Simone takes Farial on her first flight, giving the teenager controls for some time. The Afghan air force has a vanishingly small number of women pilots, and Simone even arranges for Farial to go up in the air again, this time with two of these fighter pilots.
But there are some twists in the story. Farial's traditional uncle feels that a female should not be pursuing such extraordinary pursuits. Can Simone and Magnus provide a realistic goal to the Afghan teen? Is their gift of value and their efforts well spent? The film is full of the infectious, zany early Beatles-esquire energetic charm of Simone. She is headstrong and quick thinking enough to not let get in her way any obstacle, be it a military restriction or having to carry black market gas from downtown streets to her plane.
"Smiling in a War Zone" was one of the few films that I saw at the Festival this year that garnered a standing ovation, probably both for the film itself and for the couple's giving nature. The freedom that flying represents to the couple is something that they so desperately want to share; in spite of some disappointment, clearly their almost unbelievable perseverance made a difference. We need more people like Magnus and Simone in this world! 8 ½ stars out of 10 (this is a version of a review that I published in the June, 2006 issue of "Saathee" Magazine)
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