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‘In Her Hands’ Review: Hillary Clinton-Produced Doc Wrestles With the Impact of War on Afghan Women



It’s been a year since the United States withdrew its remaining troops from Afghanistan, leaving the Taliban to seize the country’s major cities, including its capital, Kabul. The takeover was a stunning, if unsurprising, turn of events. For 20 years, Western powers deployed soldiers, sank billions of dollars and made untenable promises to citizens of this terrorized South Asian country. Few people — including the officials orchestrating the conflict — can articulate the purpose of this invisible war, but no one can deny its devastating toll.

Zarifa Ghafari, the subject of Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen’s ambitious and slippery documentary In Her Hands, desperately wants the broader world to understand the consequences of war, especially on Afghan women. At the beginning of the film, which takes place 19 months before the Taliban’s takeover, she was the youngest woman mayor in the country. (Some early press coverage misidentified her as the country’s first woman mayor, but that title belongs to Azra Jafafri, who was appointed in 2008.) Ghafari stepped into her role in 2018 and faced a strenuous battle trying to gain respect from her constituents in Maidan. Shar, the Wardick Province’s capital; other government officials; and her own father.

In Her Hands

The Bottom Line

An ambitious portrait of a complex conflict.

Acquired by Netflix ahead of its premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, In Her Hands is the first project from Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s new production company HiddenLight Productions. The irony of the former secretary of state’s involvement in the project nags at the film, which flirts with criticisms of the United States’ hawkish interventionism. Ayazi, an Afghan filmmaker and journalist, and Mettlesiefen, the German director of the Academy Award-nominated Watani: My Homeland, each have their own experience with telling stories in Afghanistan. Their collective expertise dictates the film’s broader interest in illuminating the plight of Afghan women.

With Ghafari as an anchor, the documentary paints a tactful portrait of life amid instability. Ayazi and Mettlesiefen conduct a shrewd balancing act of perspectives, threading Ghafari’s harrowing experiences with those of her devoted bodyguard Massoum and a Taliban commander, Musafer. This unpredictably composed narrative chorus reflects Afghanistan’s complicated present — the tensions between the Afghan government, the Taliban and civilians. The complex tapestry — the competing missions, the murky motivations — brings to mind a damning confession about the conflict made by General Douglas Lute, who oversaw the war operations under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” he said of the US’s involvement. “If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction…”

In Her Hands attempts to organize slivers of the tangled narrative and substantiate Lute’s confession. The film begins by efficiently establishing the tense rhythm of life before the Taliban regained control of the country; In these moments, Ghafari drives through her region, greeting her supporters and detractors with the same infectious optimism. Interviews with residents of Maidan Shar reveal the city’s deep conservatism: Many people, usually men, wonder why Ghafari is not at home caring for children instead of “bossing” them around. Others, like Massoum, take solace in Ghafari’s presence, seeing her as a beacon of the country’s future.

Ayazi and Mettlesiefen supplement these perspectives with scenes of Ghafari advocating for Afghan women’s rights; Her inspired speeches underscore the importance of education for all in building a secure future. Her position and outspokenness made her a target of the Taliban, whose members threatened to assassinate her after she took office. In one chilling scene, the young mayor re-reads early threats with the calm of someone decades older. The camera pans across her bare room and body before landing on her scorched hands clasping the letters.

It would be easy to forget that at the time of filming Ghafari wasn’t even 30 years old In Her Hands didn’t take care to portray the mayor’s personal life. Conversations with her parents, especially her father, Abdul Wasi Ghafari, a decorated former Afghan colonel, show a woman clawing for her own sovereignty, too. Ghafari senior, whom we experience through phone calls with Zarifa, does not approve of his daughter’s decisions. The way she chooses to live — as a public figure, with her fiancé — offends him, and on more than one occasion he brings Zarifa to tears.

In those moments, In Her Hands abandons the manufactured emotions peddled by the dramatic score for something more limber and grounded. Ghafari’s relationship with her father — mercurial, painful, trying — echoes existential tensions she faces in other parts of her life. How can she break through the staunch conservatism around her and offer her vision of the future? Will she commit to her family or forge her own path? What will it cost?

The last question becomes the refrain of the latter half of the documentary, as the date for American military withdrawal gets closer. Tensions are high in Afghanistan as the Taliban, after negotiating with the US, feel more emboldened. Violence in Kabul, where Ghafari lives for safety reasons, increases and her father is brutally assassinated. Scenes with her family members — especially her younger sisters — reflect a people growing more disenchanted with the state of affairs. The interviews with the Taliban — which grow repetitive and often feel like part of a different project entirely — contextualize the group’s ambitions and increased brazenness. In Her Hands starts to resemble a high-stakes drama in tone and style.

Left with fewer and fewer options, Ghafari transfers to a higher position within the government. The move ends her working relationship and friendship with Massoum because protocol requires Ghafari to employ an Afghan solider as a bodyguard and driver. Massoum, once a zealous supporter, feels betrayed by his former boss. The film doesn’t dwell on the details of the conflict, veering rather to the former driver’s engaging and sobering narrative. Without a job or prospect of one, Massoum spends his days in the mountains with his daughter, who is a toddler. His musings about the future of Afghanistan are prescient, his approach to surviving practical.

“War swallows the helpless and the poor,” he says at one point. It’s the most haunting sentiment in the documentary and the most honest articulation of Afghanistan’s struggles with both the Taliban and Western intervention. The hot-potato treatment of the issue by international governments and militant insurgent groups means civilians — the ones who have no choice but to keep living, finding solutions and supporting each other whether or not the world is paying attention — have been abandoned. It’s curious, then, after showing groups of Afghan women demonstrating against Taliban rule and forming community networks to support each other, that In Her Hands returns to Ghafari’s perspective, positioning her, perhaps unintentionally, as a savior. That conclusion is discordant with the truth about social movements and survival — the fate of Afghanistan lies in her hands, yes, but in many others too.

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