An MBA graduate who did her Film Appreciation Course in India’s prestigious Film School FTII, Pune, Jennifer Alphonse is a Hyderabad based award-winning writer, independent filmmaker and producer. She is always drawn to stories that are familiarly different. It was this love for exploring the uncharted that led her to decide to shoot a film in Afghanistan in 2017. However, everyone advised her against it.
“I once wrote a story that spanned over Kashmir and Afghanistan. I was really fortunate that one of my producers was from Afghanistan and was willing to make all the arrangements to go there and shoot. We were there for 25 days of the shoot in 2017 but had to drop everything and come back suddenly because there was a blast in Kabul. We had to pack in two hours and were put on a plane for India,” Jennifer shares.
Jennifer elaborates on her Kabul experience, “Everyone told me to cancel the shoot and go elsewhere. I stayed in Kabul for some time and also went to Jalalabad, which is on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We shot there too. We also shot in Panjshir, the only place that did not fall victim to the Taliban. Of course, the locale is beautiful and exotic. There is no comparison with the rest of the world when it comes to the beauty of Afghanistan.”
Jennifer was blown away by the hospitality of the locals there. “I was totally taken aback by their sense of hospitality. The moment you talk to the locals, they will ask you whether you are from Pakistan or Hindustan. When I said I was from Hindustan, their demeanour changed instantly. They were so warm and gave me such a good welcome,” Jennifer adds.
Speaking about the life of Afghani women, Jennifer says, “As a woman filmmaker, I have a different perspective. But I saw most women were wearing a hijab, and I was also told to wear one. Throughout the shoot, I was in a hijab, and I had to cover my head at all times. But I did not wear a burqa. Everybody who goes to Afghanistan has to wear a hijab; that is the rule even for foreigners who are women. But they were still free to go about their jobs at that time.”
Jennifer’s first short fiction film was influenced by her love for the documentary medium and her involvement with what society has termed as ‘less-privileged’. Kachra is a story about two rag picker boys from Hyderabad whose lives revolve around garbage. The film went on to win her three prestigious Golden Nandi State Awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Child Actor, along with several other International Awards.
Her second short Strangersss, inspired by an Indian cab driver who saved a foreigner, was selected at the Cannes Short Film Corner. It went on to win more than 14 international awards in various categories. Jennifer’s first full length documentary, The Take Over covers the story of a digital medium that took over Indian Cinema featuring conversations with best of Indian filmmakers and technicians. The film won the Royal Reel Award at Canada International Film Festival, 2016 apart from featuring at the Cannes Festival in the short film corner segment. It went on to win more than 12 International awards in various categories.
Her years of documentation of ancient traditions, customs and artistic heritage of various tribes from the state of Telangana resulted in a documentary featurette Nagoba Jathar. Apart from being screened at various International Film Festivals across the globe, the film also won three prestigious awards at Quetzalcoatl Indigenous International Film Festival, Mexico. It is now streaming on Docybay and Epicon OTT platforms. While working on her recent documentary Gussadi, Jennifer collected hundreds of photographs, which is her other passion. The images are now part of a first-of-its-kind tribal-based book in India called Gussadi — The Celebration of Being God.
Jennifer recalls one particular incident in Afghanistan that amazed her. “We needed a few local actors to work on the film, so my producers had placed an advertisement in local newspapers. I was shocked to see that more than 200 people turned up for the audition. And these were not just men! There were men, women and children as well! That is when I realised how much they crave a normal life,” Jennifer says.
Despite her film being incomplete, the filmmaker is hopeful of completing it someday. “We were under the impression that we would go back within a few weeks and finish the shoot. But that never happened. Then we were planning to fly in the actors from Afghanistan to India. That, too, never materialised. Someday, I will definitely complete this film and dedicate it to all the people in Afghanistan who have been so warm and gracious with me!” Jennifer signs off.