Graeme Smith and Julian Sher are veteran journalists who have seen their share of horrors. Smith was The Globe and Mail’s correspondent in Afghanistan for a decade. Sher, who used to work for the CBC’s The Fifth Estate, has also filmed in Afghanistan as well as other conflict zones, including Somalia, Kosovo and South Africa. “So we’re used to the danger,” Sher explained this week. “But I don’t think either of us ever experienced anything as frightening or risky as the 25 days we were in Kabul and Kandahar.”
The two Canadians were there together in late 2019. They had returned to Kabul and Kandahar to shoot a documentary about Smith’s experiences and his perspectives on the war in Afghanistan.
In 2005, Smith, then Moscow bureau chief for The Globe, was given a two-week assignment to report on Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections. He ended up staying to report on the continuing war. Even after Canadian troops left, and Smith left the Globe, he remained in the country, working for non-governmental organizations and the United Nations.
In 2013, Smith published a devastating, award-winning book, The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. A Montreal production company, Galafilm, bought the film rights and asked Sher to direct.
The idea was that Smith would return to Afghanistan and interview some of the people he had met along the way. They include the now former Afghan president’s national security adviser; an idealistic man running a school for girls funded with Canadian aid money; and women striving for better lives than what they had suffered under the Taliban.
As Smith explained it to Sher, he would try to see some of his old friends, but also find out “who’s dead, who’s alive, why and how they died,” recalls Sher. “And I remember saying: “Graeme, this is the ghosts of Afghanistan.”
The result, Ghosts of Afghanistan, is now streaming on TVO. It is a moving, upsetting and clear-eyed documentary – a most arresting take, as Globe TV critic John Doyle noted in his review.
Sher says he was intrigued by Smith’s vision. The former correspondent did not want the film to be a voice-of-God documentary with the usual talking heads.
“The first thing that came out of my mouth when the filmmakers approached me was, ‘No stupid white guys,’” says Smith in an interview from Italy, where he now lives. “I didn’t want any generals or Western politicians talking – I wanted Afghans to talk.”
Sher also wanted Smith to talk – not as an all-knowing voice, but as someone whose journey provides the spine of the narrative.
“There was a lot of cheerleading for what ultimately was a spectacular and bloody disaster,” Smith says in the interview. His reporting uncovered corruption and exposed the torture of Afghan prisoners who had been detained by Canadian troops and sent to Afghan jails.
Sher wanted the film to follow that arc.
“Graeme’s journey matches our journey as a country and as a people,” Sher says. “Because Graeme, like us, goes to Afghanistan as a youthful, idealistic journalist … buying that same rah-rah. And how could you not? And he begins to see the dark side. And his evolution is realizing it’s not all sunny and optimistic, that maybe this isn’t as good a war as we thought.”
That evolution and Smith’s subsequent reporting for The Globe – in particular about the prison atrocities – began to change Canada’s viewpoint, Sher says.
Sher and Smith first met when Smith was at The Globe and Sher was working on the 2008 CBC documentary Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear. Sher had e-mailed Smith about that project, explaining who he was and what he was doing. Smith wrote back and told him there was no need to introduce himself, telling him, “‘We studied you in journalism school,’” Sher recalls. “I guess it was a compliment, but it made me feel very old.”
Smith’s first day as a staff reporter at The Globe after an internship was Sept. 10, 2001; on his second day, he was sent to Pennsylvania to report on the hijacked plane that had been forced down into a field. “So 9/11 cast a long shadow over my career,” he says.
For the documentary, the pair shot in Afghanistan during November and December, 2019 – the danger more intense than what they had encountered before. They hired a security firm, stayed in a heavily guarded compound and drove around in an armoured car. They saw almost no other foreigners out on the streets. They stuck to a 20-minute rule: They could stay nowhere longer than 20 minutes in order to avoid being targeted for kidnapping. They wore trackers and had designated times to check in with their wives by e-mail.
They had given cameras to some Taliban fighters they could trust in order to get footage from deep within their territory. At one point, the Taliban advised them not to go too far outside Kandahar, Sher recalls. “When the Taliban tells you it’s too dangerous, it’s probably too dangerous.”
Sher and Smith then travelled to Doha in February, 2020, to shoot scenes with Taliban officials. Here, at a hotel near Taliban headquarters, they got the first sit-down television interview with Khairullah Khairkhwa, who had been an interior minister in the previous Taliban regime and was later imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. This week, Sher notes, he was appointed to run Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture.
After they left Doha, COVID-19 hit, making editing more challenging. They delivered the film in the spring of this year, but TVO decided to wait to air it in connection with the 20th anniversary of 9/11, given that the invasion of Afghanistan followed those attacks.
Then over the summer, everything changed: the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban victory, the chaos of desperate evacuations and those left behind, terrified.
Sher and Smith did some quick rewriting. And at the end of the film, we learn what has happened to some of the people featured in the documentary.
Their story is not over, of course. The day we spoke, Sher was getting WhatsApp messages from one of the people in the film, pleading for help, and sharing death threats they were getting on their phones from the Taliban.
“It’s been sleepless nights,” he said.
Sher and Smith are also trying to bring one of the families in the film to Canada. Amir Mohammed Ansari was a human-rights investigator quoted in Smith’s seminal reporting for The Globe about the prisoner abuse. Ansari was murdered – beheaded. His family – his daughter and nephew, who are married and have a child – have managed to leave, but they are in Rome in limbo, without papers. Smith had been communicating with them early Thursday, in the hour before we spoke.
“Just like thousands of other Afghans who are seeking shelter, they are e-mailing anonymous government e-mail addresses and praying for answers,” Smith says. “I can’t tell you how many times Afghans have reached out looking for relocation in the last several weeks. I’m also speaking to Afghans who would prefer to stay, because not everybody sees the Taliban takeover as a disaster.”
But for Afghans like the couple he and Smith are trying to help, Sher says Canada owes them shelter.
“Ansari was a key source for a Canadian journalist. He was quoted in The Globe. His stories changed Canada’s history and our view of the world. He then gets killed by the Taliban,” Sher says.
“And we should save his family, because that’s our legacy. If we went in there with all these ideals of democracy and human rights, we don’t wash our hands because there are no more Canadian troops. It’s our mess – so we’re responsible for cleaning it up.”
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