“In Her Hands” starts at the end: Tanks rolling into Kabul, frantic packing, and Maidan Shahr mayor, Zarifa Ghafari, sitting in the footwell of a car, shielding her head from the window as she flees Afghanistan amid the Taliban’s rise to power in the spring of 2021. How did it all come to this? And how will Ghafari get out?
These are the questions that documentarians Marcel Mettelsiefen and Tamana Ayazi (“Watani: My Homeland”) hope to answer – if only their documentary, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on its way to Netflix, weren’t hobbled by a lack of viable footage and genuine moments.
Following its frightening beginning, “In Her Hands” slips into telling rather than showing, a 90-minute campaign ad for Ghafari’s future political and social activism rather than a story that occurs in the present.
To her credit, Ghafari is an immensely likable figure. Born in 1992, she is the youngest female mayor appointed in Afghanistan, and she was responsible for representing one of the more conservative areas of the country, with Taliban-run territories bordering right against her. At any point in time, a violent threat could and would uproot her life; she’d have to move, change staff and travel with armed bodyguards.
Ghafari is a smart and educated leader, advocating insistently on education for women in Afghanistan. She’s funny, too, and kind to her staff. Her bed is covered with stuffed animals, and she has a loving, warm relationship with her fiancé and now husband Bashir Mohammadi.
“In Her Hands” is full of arresting footage: Ghafari’s scarred hands clutching her cell phone, riding in the backseat of a car in which her driver Massoum holds a gun in his lap as he makes a turn. Often, Ghafari’s job requires her to drive through Taliban-ruled territory, where any stopped car or traffic jam or suspicious gathering could be the source of another attack. Through all of this, she is positive and forward-thinking, eager to move past the Taliban’s threats on her life and to get her job done. Only, “In Her Hands” is rather uninterested in what it is that Ghafari does, relying on more dynamic, albeit repetitive, scenes of her having to address the danger in her life.
Much attention has been paid to Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s executive-producing role in the film, a fitting match for a documentary on a female politician struggling against the status quo. Ghafari rages against the system in question, but one glance at her office and her peers, and it’s easy to see that her staff consists of mostly men. Who knows what kind of hiring restrictions were put into place on Ghafari’s office, but despite her claims of wanting to elevate women, we see little of her doing that, minus helping out beggars in the street. More weight is given to Ghafari’s international travels, a speech she gives in Washington, D.C. to ask for the United States’ help as the American military gears up to leave.
As the film’s tensions heighten, it becomes clear that impending danger will force Ghafari to make the choice between protecting her immediate family and standing by her people. This is a difficult choice, one made with tears and discomfort, but Ghafari’s lack of class (or even worker) solidarity and her willingness to flee in the nigh call into question much of what she stands for in the first half of the documentary.
It would be one thing if “In Her Hands” was willing to get its hands messy, so to speak, and delve into the ways in which leadership often closes a circle around an otherwise generous, compassionate person. But Ghafari’s eventual escape from Kabul as the city falls into the hands of the Taliban is perpetrated with relative disregard for those among her — one of the stickier, more uncomfortable bits of the U.S. departure, as well.
The film champions women as a two-syllable word and idea, but not with any kind of practical understanding of what Afghani women need or what they can do to help their own situation. Ghafari, though sympathetic, is perhaps a worthy avatar as someone in power rendered equally useless by the system. But the documentary is so outwardly focused, so intended for Western audiences, that it barely transcends the nature of a Wikipedia page, afraid to push back or to show anything that might complicate the notion of what a female leader has to do either to get work done or to be respected (or ideally both).
There’s a scene late in the documentary in which it is implied that Ghafari is corrupt, or that her position was acquired dishonestly; though the documentary chooses not to entertain this notion, it’s a criticism worth pressing, to see why and how people have come to think this way about her. The more it focuses on Ghafari’s positive energy and frustrated tears, the more it’s easy to believe there’s something else we’re not seeing.
The film tries in vain to end on a hopeful note, but the fact of the matter is that Ghafari had the means and ability to leave Afghanistan while many others did not. Her solution to the problem is frustratingly opaque, focusing on women’s labor and a bootstraps mentality that contradicts much of what she says earlier in the film. “In Her Hands” can ultimately neither endorse nor neglect Ghafari’s contributions to Afghanistan, in part because it’s just too soon to know what difference, if any, she was able to make.
“In Her Hands” will be released globally on Netflix on Nov. 16.