‘My Childhood, My Country’: Film Review

Phil Grabsky and Shoaib Sharifi’s documentary chronicles the life of an Afghan youth over a period of two decades.

This new documentary, co-directed by Phil Grabsky and Shoaib Sharifi and filmed over a period of 20 years, chronicles an Afghan youth, Mir Hussein, from his childhood to his life in present-day Kabul. That it resembles a nonfiction, Afghan variation on Richard Linklater’s acclaimed 2014 Boyhood is a powerful enough hook, but My Childhood, My Country, being released just as the rapid American withdrawal from the country has resulted in violent chaos, gains added urgency when you consider the plight of its principal subject. One can only pray that he survives, and that the filmmakers can catch up with him again in the future.

Prolific documentarian Grabsky first spotlighted the charismatic Mir Hussein as a playful 8-year-old living with his family in a cave in 2004’s The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. He continued to track Hussein’s life over several years, capturing him growing into a young man in 2011’s The Boy Mir. This new effort catches up with Hussein as a married father of three, working as a cameraman on the mean streets of Kabul.

My Childhood, My Country

The Bottom Line

Urgently timely for all the wrong reasons.

Release Date: Friday, Aug. 27

Directors: Phil Grabsky, Shoaib Sharifi

1 hour 30 minutes

The once perpetually cheerful Hussein doesn’t look so happy anymore. He still smiles a lot, but usually with a weary, pained expression. He says that he didn’t want to get married and have children so young, but did so at his father’s insistence. His wife acknowledges that her knowledge of birth control came too late.

This effort recaps Hussein’s life over the past two decades, never mentioning the previous documentaries. Narrating the film, Hussein describes his happy childhood living with his parents, sister and brother-in-law in a cave near the legendary Buddha statues that were tragically destroyed by the Taliban. He and his family were optimistic after the American invasion; at one point he’s shown pointing at a fighter jet passing overhead, exclaiming, “I like Americans.”

Still, living in a cave has its drawbacks, even for a plucky youth. “There was a lot of tension in that small space,” Hussein admits. A few years later the family was able to return to their home village, with Hussein happily going back to school with the intention of becoming either “a headmaster or president.” But he soon had to take time off to perform manual labor to help support his family, eventually doing the dangerous work of extracting coal.

Meanwhile, there was increasing conflict between the Taliban and NATO forces. Hussein says he was excited and frightened to see foreign soldiers in his village for the first time, noticing that the young men seemed scared as well.

After getting married, Hussein moved his wife and growing family to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where they struggled financially because Hussein was unable to find good paying work. It was the filmmakers who helped him achieve his dream of working as a cameraman; upon moving to Kabul, he spent much of his professional time filming the carnage that resulted from suicide bombings. He nearly got killed himself when a bomber infiltrated a group of journalists and blew himself up. Hussein rushed toward the scene, and it was only because he stopped to make a phone call that he avoided becoming the victim of a second bomber at the same location.

The intimate profile is frequently interrupted by archival news footage which now has a deeply ironic tone. We listen as a series of presidents, from Bush to Obama to Trump, declare victory over the Taliban, and see a beaming Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney watch the inauguration of Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s president. But as recent events have proven, while things definitely improved in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, its problems are far from resolved.

“I have never experienced a happy life, due to war and the Taliban,” says Hussein at the film’s conclusion. He nonetheless feels optimism, declaring that he’s “hopeful for a better future for Afghanistan.”

My Childhood, My Country, which inevitably recalls Michael Apted’s Up series, suffers from pacing issues and feels choppy at times. But its decades-long portrait of a young man struggling to survive amidst difficult circumstances proves deeply moving, especially in light of recent events. At the end of the film, Hussein informs us that he’s out of work as a result of local shutdowns during the COVID pandemic. With the country once again in the hands of the Taliban, that may be the least of his problems.

Full credits

Distributor: Seventh Art Productions
International TV and digital distribution: Bomanbridge Media
Production companies: Seventh Art Productions in association with Arte and WDR
Directors/directors of photography: Phil Grabsky, Shoaib Sharifi
Producer: Phil Grabsky
Editor: Clive Mattock
Composer: Asa Bennett

1 hour 30 minutes