Alumni/ae Feature: Ariel Nasr Class of '97

Monday, January 18, 2010

by Declan O’Driscoll '93

Transcribed by Leah Weber
Photos courtesy of Ariel Nasr

Good Morning, Kandahar is a documentary that asks the question, What is life like for young Afghan-Canadians when the country they live in is at war in their homeland? The film is directed by Ariel Nasr, a TWS alumnus who is currently living in Kabul, Afghanistan, working as a writer and director. Ariel’s current project is a feature documentary about the Afghan National Women’s Boxing Team. I arrange to meet Ariel at a popular coffee shop in downtown Toronto. Although the place is crowded and we have never met before, Ariel and I recognize each other right away. He gets a tea, I a latte, and off we go to the park to have a chat.

Ariel Nasr, class of '97, hard at work in Afghanistan filming Good Morning, Kandahar.Declan:
So, how did you begin your path as a filmmaker?

Ariel:
I got into film later in life. I was twenty-six before I ever considered film-making as an option. First, I wanted to be a farmer, so I spent a couple of years working on farms. I spent an entire year as an apprentice. It’s something I had always done as a teenager, I’d work on farms in the summers. After a while, I became interested in having my own place, my own homestead. Unfortunately, I was injured one winter and had to stop doing farm work. By the time the next spring came along there was a lot of work to do, but my injury stopped me from being able to complete it so I had to find something else to do. I went to school, to King’s College in Halifax. I thought I’d just do one year and then go back to the farm, but I got interested and ended up doing a full degree, a BA in history, finishing in 2005. Towards the end of my degree, I thought about going into law, then suddenly I had a change of heart. I was going through some tough personal stuff and I realized what I really wanted to do was tell stories. So I gravitated towards film and started making documentaries.  

Declan: What type of documentaries inspired you?

Ariel Nasr on the set of Good Morning, Kandahar, with a friend.Ariel: At first I made documentaries with friends. It was a good experience because we had an audience and we had funding. We focused on social/political issues. We made a film about student funding. We traveled a lot for it, it was fun to shoot, and a lot of fun to do. We ended up showing it to the Nova Scotia government; it got picked up and used as a lobby tool. My experience showed me that one can actually do something with documentaries, make some kind of difference, and it’s a creative way of telling stories that are engaging. After that, I just got more and more fascinated with making documentaries. I think it was the editing that really caught my attention at first. Somehow it felt similar to the process of dreaming. It felt really comfortable for me. I began doing it for other people. I had no real training and not much experience, but I kind of just put up a shingle and started telling people I was an editor. People gave me projects and asked me to work for next to nothing, which I did. After about six months, I actually started to get jobs that paid a little bit. Soon it was enough to live on! That was encouraging; so I continued.  

Declan:
What led you to writing and directing?

Ariel: Well, during that time I was always making my own documentaries and my own shorts. I also created multi-media for stage plays. I did anything that I could. Eventually I got a job as assistant editor at the National Film Board. As soon I got there I started bothering them to let me direct a film. I used to work the night shift. I remember, I’d be there alone. Often when you’re assistant editing what you’re doing is logging footage, digitizing footage, which in a way is the worst kind of job you could have—it’s boring as hell—but in another way it affords you time to do other things. And, if you’re at the National Film Board or somewhere  where high quality films are made, you can watch all the footage, all the out-takes, and learn how documentaries are made. I used to rifle through the garbage/recycling bin to find shooting scripts and proposals. Every minute I spent at the Film Board I spent trying to learn—I would read the technical manuals and anything else I could find. After working at the NFB, I did a little gig for the CBC and I started to get more editing gigs that paid well. Soon I started sending my own ideas for a film to an executive producer at the Atlantic studio of the NFB. He told me there was a national call for proposals from film-makers of colour. As an Afghan Canadian, I qualified. But first I had to get the interest of a producer. My proposal was picked up by an NFB producer from Halifax and put into the pool of submissions. It went through a long process of development and different stages of proposal writing. We put together a research proposal, then a development package, and finally submitted the film with a budget. To my surprise, it won the funding competition. So I was able to make my film.  

Declan: What is the film about?

Ariel: Good Morning, Kandahar is really a discussion about the relationship between Afghanistan and Canada, through the perspective of Afghan-Canadians.  It looks at the debate over whether Canada should be in Afghanistan, and questions what we’re doing there. The film follows three individuals whose stories are related thematically and the narrative thread is my own curiosity and my own struggle to understand the relationship between the two countries. My stimulus—other than just being Afghan—was the war in Afghanistan. Early on in the war, when we started to hear news of civilian casualties coming from Coalition Forces bombing in villages, I took it really hard. I was a kid in the '80s when the Jijhad against the Soviet army was happening and of course I was horrified and enthralled by those stories. There were so many civilian casualties from those years you can’t even count them—over a million dead in Afghanistan. But this time it was different because I was older; at an age where I thought I could do something. And it was my country that was in Afghanistan this time so there is this kind of conflict that’s in the film: “my country is at war with my father’s country.”

Declan: How does Waldorf education and TWS fit into all of this?

Ariel: I had a really great teacher, Mr. Robins, Gregg Robins, who now teaches in downtown Toronto at the Alan Howard Waldorf School. He is a great storyteller—for me, in some ways, it is more about the storyteller than the story itself. A deep love of stories was instilled in me and it’s something that has stayed with me. Mr. Robins was such a great storyteller, he’d intersperse his stories with music, songs, and drama. We listened to his stories for hours, our heads on our desks. We’d just sit there listening. I don’t think he had any discipline problems with us; we just sat there and listened, enthralled. Later my class ended up being a bit wild; we were a bit harder to manage for other teachers. I think it was sort of like this dysfunctional family. We lost our father figure when Mr. Robins left because of his glaucoma. Those of us who had been there during that period, I think, never really got over losing this great storyteller. For me, anyway, that was the case. He was such a powerful storyteller. All of my childhood, the parts of my education that stand out, the ones I can remember clearly, are listening to stories—not just at the Waldorf school, and school in general, but even at my violin lessons. I would go—I hated the lesson, I always felt a bit guilty for not having worked harder—but the moment my teacher started telling stories about his own Romanian violin teacher, I would forget about the violin and sink into the story. All throughout my childhood that was the case. I think that’s why, when I was going through some hard times in my twenties, I came back to storytelling. That, to me, was the real value of the Waldorf school. As far as something that stuck with me, it was the storytelling, listening to all those stories.  

Declan: When you were a child, did you hear stories from or about Afghanistan?

Ariel: Tons of stories from my dad—stories about my grandfather who was a tribal leader in a rural area of Herat. My dad had a privileged upbringing as the son of a local leader. He loved to tell stories about how the tribal justice system worked and about some of the kind-hearted things his father did for the village where they lived. As I got older I developed different perspectives on these stories and I continue to develop different perspectives on them now that I’ve been to Afghanistan. So, it’s interesting—and that’s my heritage. I only have my dad and a few cousins who really have those memories. So those stories are really valuable and very precious to me.  

 

Declan O'Driscoll, class of '93.I was very happy to spend the morning with Ariel. As a fellow filmmaker and a fellow Waldorfian, I feel that we indeed share a passion for storytelling, the way in which human beings reach out to each other. These days I also tell stories through the medium of moving images. Currently I am a television producer at Stornoway Communications in Toronto. Currently I am producing a documentary called Milk War about Michael Schmidt’s battle to legalize the sale of unpasteurized, farm fresh milk in Canada. The film is set to be released on ichannel in November 2009.  

For more information about Good Morning, Kandahar, please Google it or check out this website to see the trailer of the film.

More video profiles of our alumni can be found here.