DVD Review: Frontrunner: The Afghan Woman who Surprised the World

These days, social documentaries stick to a few simple formulas. One is to show the process of social reform in relation to whatever sorry, formidable or oppressive state of affairs that exist, and show accord with the reformists even if the odds are against these changes succeeding.

Frontrunner: The Afghan Woman who Surprised the World (2007), which premiered at the 14th annual Slamdance Film Festival, follows Dr. Massouda Jalal, a pediatrician and teacher who ran for president of Afghanistan in 2004, as she walks the political fault lines between patriarchy, militancy, and the better financed political machine of the eventual winner, President Hamid Karzai.

As a case study, Frontrunner examines the kind of investment needed to make democracy take root in a difficult cultural terrain and explores the process of building a political framework that allows women to develop social and political power. For this documentary, there is no debate. Democracy is a necessary condition for women to voice their concerns in their own country, for theocratic governments create male hegemonies that are reinforced by tribal politics. Although Frontrunner focuses on democracy as a political mechanism, it also argues that democracy is a moral instrument, one that allows all groups to express their political wills regardless of factional affiliations.

As a political candidate, Jalal ventures bravely into the agora, breaking new ground by making arguments to legitimize her position. Her rhetorical exegesis is to use examples from democratic countries with significant Muslim populations (Turkey, Indonesia, India) that have or have had women leaders. Once she is in the thick of her candidacy, she works tirelessly in her campaign, giving interviews and speeches to interested but sometimes skeptical audiences. Here, the spoken word is the primacy of political power, particularly in a culture with stunning illiteracy rates.

Clearly, the film’s purpose is to create an empathic understanding of Jalal, to see Afghanistan from her perspective, and to understand her run for the presidency. In a few scenes, the documentary adopts Jalal and her husband’s criticisms of Karzai to illustrate his political advantages, ones that come from the kind of tribalism that, for the film, is antithetical to democratic practices. These points may be fair, and there’s lots to admire about the film’s focus, but Frontrunner suffers from some simple problems.

To develop a better understanding of its subject, the film should have composed a more substantive portrait of Jalal rather than just focusing on her political identity. Frontrunner skimps on explaining those important aspects that have helped shape her political perspective. What are her views on philosophy, theology and, even, parenthood, aspects which an academic would be prepared to answer? Quite curiously, the documentary makes little attempt to explain Jalal’s view of the paradigm shift that accorded her the freedom to run for office.

These expository problems are compounded when the documentary begins a bit confusingly with Afghanistan’s 2002 election for the interim presidency because the process by which Jalal decides to run is edited too statically to understand fully. In media res plunks us down into a confusing election process. Certainly, this confusion is deliberate, but the documentary over relies on multiple voices to explain the competing confusions.

What is clear, however, is that the film isn’t afraid to argue that the work for women relies on the labor of men. From her husband, her vice presidential candidates (she has two) and her media staff, males work tirelessly to contribute to her candidacy. In this sense, the documentary works best when showing how political majorities help minorities understand the full benefits of citizenry. Though Jalal failed in her bid (she placed sixth), Frontrunner illustrates how a force of people are trying to change long-established cultural norms by altering social practices, and such changes begin with the freedom to act on one’s personal beliefs.

In this sense, the documentary offers an interesting argument. Quite boldly, the film asserts that a political identity developed within a democracy leads to legitimate claims to power whereas an identity conceived outside of democracy leads to extremism. This kind of partisanship is but one facet of how the film identifies with Jalal. But because Middle Eastern affairs are complicated and dense, Frontrunner, unfortunately, relies on a simple dualism to compose its narrative — where good things happen here and bad things are over there — as a pedagogical resolve.

This didactic scheme of antithesis is useful when teaching audiences about what particular view or practice is best, but effective social documentaries should move beyond binaries by giving more insight and reflection on complex cultural matters by analyzing the dialectical relationships between individual choice and group behavior, politics and culture, and even religion and modernity. Though such juxtapositions are tried by the filmmakers, Frontrunner cuts too many thematic corners to achieve the substance the filmmakers clearly desire.

Finally, Frontrunner sees the effort of finding a public voice for women as an important struggle, so given what’s at stake, the documentary takes this interesting subject and muffles its intellectual appeal by embracing a simple didacticism that never moves beyond composing a one-dimensional profile of a complicated woman. Despite these problems, the documentary does allow us to comprehend the immense difficulties of political reform in a culture held together by tribal customs and still suffering from the catastrophic effects of Taliban rule.

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