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Sheff/Doc/Fest: Review - Laila at the Bridge

Andrew Young reports back from this year's Sheffield Documentary Festival with praise for this enlightening and inspiring film

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Director: Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei

Length: 1hr 36m

Rating: 18

Image: Sarah Harvey Publicity/Intuitive Pictures/Mirzaei Films

Laila at the Bridge is the story of a quite remarkable woman. Directed by husband-and-wife team Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei, it follows Laila Haidari as she helps heroin addicts in Afghanistan. It is an at-times incredibly distressing film, but one that finds light in amongst its bleak world.

The film informs us early on that Afghanistan has one of the worst opium problems in the world, with extreme levels of addiction, a vicious drug mafia, and corrupt government officials that get in the way of any real progress being made in the battle against addiction. Laila and her ex-addict brother have decided to wage war against these combined forces.

Many of Kabul's addicts live underneath the titular bridge, in squalid conditions and at major risk of disease. It is the kind of place that many would dare not go, but Laila has a fearlessness that sees her march onwards in her mission to save the addicts. It is this fearlessness that characterises much of the Mirzaeis' portrait of Laila. Her gender is a major contributing factor too, with her asserting herself as a forceful, brave woman in the midst of potentially violent and corrupt men. In one scene, she goes to see the Minister who is supposedly responsible for combatting Afghanistan's opium issue and announces her arrival with the line: "Tell them Laila Haidari is here, and she's pissed off."

This humour and don't-give-a-shit attitude in Laila's confrontations is something that this documentary makes feel incredibly necessary. It is a film that is very sympathetic towards her, showing the real horror of the situation and therefore the gall and power that is needed to fight it. When the many addicts taken under Laila's care try to give up and re-enter the drug-infested streets, she is a formidable opponent. She does not stop them, but by God you'd be scared if you had to disagree with her.

Despite the obvious nobility of Laila's cause, what the film does so well is to scratch beneath this inspiring surface to see something of Laila's true character beneath. Like all tough people, there is a suggestion of vulnerability in her. We learn early on that her children emigrated with their father (because, we are told, "the man always gets custody"), therefore explaining the role of 'mother' she plays to the many addicts. The structuring of this aspect of the film is expertly handled by Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei. After we are first informed of Laila's familial situation, this issue is left to lie in the back of the audience's head. We know that this must play on Laila's mind, but to an extent she appear to avoid confronting it by mothering the addicts instead. Then eventually it must be confronted; a vicious emotional attack from a drugs minister hits hard for both Laila and the audience. We see her pain, we see the work she puts in to help others, and we properly connect with the film's subject. That is the work of a good documentary.

The hard realities of the fight are made abundantly clear by the film as well. A lack of funding and the below-par conditions Laila struggles to maintain are two frustrating obstacles. More frightening however, is the attempts on her life. Being brave and compassionate seems to make you a lot of enemies in the Afghanistan drug world, so Laila is always on her guard. It is a sad fact that the film sensitively handles. Arguably less sensitive, is the harrowing scene where an addicted mother gives ground opium to her similarly addicted baby. It is harrowing to watch and feels perhaps too invasive, but this extreme filmmaking is arguably necessary to the film's power.

What we are left with at the end of Laila at the Bridge, is hope. Throughout the danger and the struggles and the emotional turmoil of Laila's fight, she keeps her sense of humour, and so do the addicts. When these people are brought together they support each other and feed into a collective atmosphere of optimism and happiness. In this respect, Laila at the Bridge is warmly inspiring and a force for positive social action.

If you would like to donate to help Laila treat addicts, then go to:

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