Richard James, director of White Silk Road, explains the joys and challenges of filming a snowboardinq movie in Afahanistan a
With snowboarding films, the same places appear every year, like Europe, Alaska, Canada. We wanted to try something new, and we kinda took it to the extreme. I first got the idea after reading a couple of newspaper articles about local skiers in Afghanistan.
There was a profile of this Afghan guy who had been a skier in ’s and he actually went to the Winter Olympics and represented. During that time, there was still a tourism industry and there were even ski resorts in Kabul – ita completely different scene to now. Then the Soviets invaded and a war broke out and itbeen war torn ever since. Anyway, this guy hadnskied in 30 years and was only now getting back on the slopes. Apparently, he was also only skier in Afghanistan”, and I found that cool.
I was only just getting into filmmaking at the time, and that article stayed in the back of my mind, but I never thought it would be a practical thing to do, given the state of Afghanistan. Everyone I mentioned it to was like, an idiot”, which is fair enough, but I didnlike hearing that it wasnpossible. I got in contact with James Wilcox, this British guy whospent a lot of time over there, and he was a traveller who decided to set up a business with a couple of local guys to promote tourism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After speaking with him, I realised it was possible to go over and do this.
I spent a while trying to get the idea off the ground and eventually I got together with Alex [Cameron, producer], whomore closely involved with the snowboarding industry than me, and we recruited the athletes. Then it was a group effort between us and the riders to get it going.
We were lucky in that the riders involved in the project – Clint Allan, Nick Gregory, and Mitch Allan – are pretty much the biggest names in Australian snowboarding. It wasnjust a matter of getting high-profile people – these guys were definitely up for it, too. Nick Gregory, whoa little older and wiser but doesnsnowboard so much anymore, was good to have along because he was very level-headed. Clint and Mitch, aside from being incredibly good athletes, have that up-for-anything attitude and they didnblink at the prospect of going.
The lead-up was pretty scary, mainly because of the whole unknown, the hell am I getting myself into?’factor.
We had this plan mapped out and what we thought was a pretty good assessment of the risks, so we figured it would be fairly safe. But you still hear these stories about kidnappings and bombs and places you cango, which is a bit unsettling. The anticipation was worse than the reality, though.
Once we were there, the thing that scared us badly was that in the days leading up to our arrival in Kabul – we were in Dubai at the time – there were these protests that broke out because it emerged that these American soldiers had burned copies of the Koran on a military base. I don t think it was intentional but it became a big news story and, subsequently, resulted in riots where people were calling for the blood of Americans and Westerners. When we got there it had calmed down a little but there was this one time when we were driving and our car got blocked by a group of protestors. We just sat there speechless.
It wasna violent situation, and we got out OK, but the news reports weseen had shaken us up a bit.
One thing that isnelaborated on in the film is that the province of Bamyan [most of the movie takes place there], which is situated in the mountains, is different from the rest of the country, in that the people who live there are this ethnic minority called Hazara. Itlike a self-contained part of Afghanistan. They re Shia Muslims; not Sunni Muslims – the dominant religion and they have a distinct look about them; a more Asian appearance. They donlike the Taliban, so thereno sympathy for the insurgency, and that makes it a relatively safe part of the country for Westerners to go. We felt incredibly welcomed and safe.
The landscape is so unique – itlike being on the Moon Therenot one tree. There are these ridiculous formations and these amazing colours – reds and oranges like younever seen. Behind the cliffs and valleys are these huge
steep, snow-capped mountains that are just like anything youfind in Europe or
North America. That got everyone really excited.
THE SNOW MUST
The challenge for us was access.
We didnreally have anythingbesides ourown legs to hike up there with – there were no helicopters or snowmobiles. The biggest snowboarding film in recent times is The Art of Flight and that was a massive production: a budget of a few million dollars, cameras worth a hundred grand, multiple angles, rigs. Thatwhat people are used to seeing now when they go to a snowboarding film but we were very limited. This is not The Art of Flight.
It was pretty tough to capture and not something I had much experience doing. My background is surfing films
but Ialways wanted to make a snow film. I did think about bringing a specialist cinematographer along but in the end, it was such a low-budget, DIY kinda thing that I was just like, do it. How hard can it be?”It turned out to be pretty bloody hard! I was relatively light in terms of camera equipment – it was just a camera and a tripod – but thatstill 20-plus kilos on your back when youtrudging around in the snow. Plus, youfighting with the weather and the light, which is constantly changing. Ita really tough environment
to shoot in. But between Alex, the other cameraman, and myself, we stuck it out and made it work.
Culture shocks? The first meal I was served was this cowhoof – like a knuckle in congealed fat. I looked at it and was like, … I caneat that.”
And in each town, therea street where the butcher is based, and thatjust a hole in the wall – inside, theybe carving up goats and there are cowheads lined up.
We were amazed at how happy and hospitable everyone was – not just in Bamyan but Afghanistan in general. The people are so nice and itso refreshing to be somewhere as a tourist but not to be treated like one, since the concept of tourism doesnexist. A lot of places Itravelled, people know youa tourist and their main focus is what they can get out of you. But over there, any relationships you form with people feel more genuine.
For that reason, doing this project was a bit of a conflicting. On the one hand, part of what wedoing is promoting tourism, and thata key goal of the locals who ski there. Tourism brings money, which is better than subsistence farming. On the other hand, tourism can impact negatively on the local culture and way of life. But I donthink Afghanistan is at threat of over-tourism any time soon.