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Afghanistan film students hope to educate through television

By Natalie Brunell, CNN
updated 10:05 AM EDT, Thu August 23, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Student hopes to use TV to help those in Afghanistan
  • TV was banned under Taliban; now many have access
  • USC program helps educate aspiring Afghanistan filmmakers

(CNN) -- The blue neon light of a Hollywood comedy club appears blurry in the lens of Mujeeb Arez's HD camcorder as he steadies it in his hand. It's almost 9 p.m. on a Tuesday, and he is shooting his documentary after a full day of classes at the University of Southern California.

He adjusts the focus to bring his subject into clear view, the way his instructors trained him. Meanwhile, his colleague and good friend, Taimor Najib, holds the boom mic up and out of the shot as Arez begins his interview.

The techniques they're putting to practice are the same as they will use when they return to their home in Kabul, Afghanistan, to produce television for the Afghan people.

"We don't have any professional production school in Afghanistan," Najib said. "I need to make some professional commercials to change TV and change the people's minds over there from being basic to being professional."

Arez and Najib, both 24, arrived in Los Angeles from Afghanistan in June to study for six weeks at one of the premiere film schools. The USC program, now in its second year, enrolls just two Afghan students in cinema courses during the summer for a crash course in storytelling, camera techniques, lighting, editing and commercial production.

Mujeeb Arez, left, and Taimor Najib check the inputs on their camera before getting to workk.
Mujeeb Arez, left, and Taimor Najib check the inputs on their camera before getting to workk.

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"What we're able to do is bring two people who have had sparse training in broadcasting, bring them here and turn them loose in a film class that lasts six weeks and it's intensive," said David Weitzner, director of the USC School of Cinematic Arts Summer Program.

The program is largely funded by former Viacom CEO Tom Freston, who owns a private company that invests and consults in the media and entertainment businesses. But in the 1970s, Freston was in the clothing business, living and working in Kabul, where he developed a lasting connection to Afghanistan.

"I was lucky enough to have lived there and build a great affinity and understanding for the people, who I think are kind of misrepresented in the world in the last 10, 20, 30 years," Freston said. "This is a moment for them to continue to really move forward and break out and join the world community."

In light of the ongoing conflict that news organizations center on, Najib and Arez have wondered how their classmates view the country they call home.

"I've asked my class fellows and also I've asked my professor about it," Najib said. "And they're still thinking that about the Taliban and the al Qaeda, but I told them no, actually it's not the same thing now. Afghanistan is totally changed now."

The TV industry is at a critical juncture in Afghanistan.

Under the Taliban, there was no television, and today 60% of people have access to broadcast media, according to Weitzner. It has increasingly become the primary source of entertainment and information for Afghans, he said.

More than half the population is still illiterate, but Freston said Afghans are discovering educational value in a show with which many Americans are familiar: "Sesame Street." "We find there's a very big adult population that watches that and learns how to count and speak."

"People in Afghanistan don't go out a lot for dinner, they don't have a lot of the leisure activities that we do, so they stay home and watch television," Freston said, adding that sometimes families rely on car batteries to power their television sets.

With a sense of the power of television to create a sense of national unity, Freston and the program administrators hope Arez and Najib will hit the ground running in Afghanistan and have an immediate effect on the growing audience of television consumers.

"These two young men are going to go back into that world and further accelerate that change through the very effective medium of television by creating television in Afghanistan by Afghans for Afghans," Freston said.

"When I go back to my country, I will share everything that I learned here with my colleagues," Arez said. "That will help them also to work professionally in production and for TV and media."

Arez's documentary, "An Engineer Became a Comedian," deals with the theme of following one's passion rather than money. The film profiles a stand-up comic whose parents wouldn't pay for college unless he studied medicine, law or engineering. So he became an aerospace engineer by day and worked on perfecting his stand-up routine by night.

"This same thing is happening also in Afghanistan," Arez said. "They push their daughter and son to study the field that their parents want."

"I am one of the lucky guys that always had my family support me to work in TV."

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