Exclusive Interview with Afghan-American Documentary Filmmaker Ariana Delawari

Ariana Delawari

Photo Courtesy of Ariana Delawari
Ariana Delawari is a woman of many talents: musician, actress, photographer, and with her new documentary "We Came Home", she's now an inspiring filmmaker. The world may already know her name due to her psychedelic folk debut album, ?Lion of Panjshir?, which garnered a lot of positive press for its combination of classical Afghan music and American rock & roll. Her new documentary "We Came Home" shows the making of the record (in Afghanistan and Los Angeles) and lends a completely new understanding to Delawari's music. The documentary, like the album, also tells the story of Delawari's struggles with the political climate of a post 9/11 Afghanistan, and the enduring hope and love that prevails in a world of extreme uncertainty.

Delawari was born in Los Angeles the same year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, her home filled with Afghan music, Madonna music videos, and political commentary as her father, Noorullah Delawari, fought for his homeland by organizing demonstrations and lobbying Congress. In 2002, her parents returned to Afghanistan, where her father rose to the head of the Afghan Investment Support Agency and become an advisor to President Hamid Karzai, ultimately helping the country institute their own banking system. Her mom, who speaks six languages, did her part by working for the United Nations. It wasn't until 2003 that Delawari visited her parents in Kabul, Afghanistan for the first time, documenting everything she came across.

"We Came Home" ignores sensationalism, instead focusing on her family and the people she met on her musical journey. Not only telling the story of her album (which was released on David Lynch's record label), "We Came Home" tells the love story of her parents and how they came to meet. Using old footage and family interviews, Delwari weaves a generational story of family and how they stick together no matter what. She films Kabul with love and excitement, showing the passion and joy in everyone she meets, creating a love letter to the country and a relatable story that works as a bridge between Afghanistan and America. The film just premiered at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival and won the Jury Grand Prize for Best International Documentary, starting Delawari's bright future as a filmmaker.

In this interview Delawari chats about how music brings people together in a way nothing else can, how her family dealt with her filming them, working with David Lynch, the emotional effect the success of her album had on her, and what's coming up next for her in the future. lltitle=Ariana Delawari Talks the Personal Messages Within Documentary "We Came Home"### llcontent=You may know Ariana Delawari's name from the positive press she's gained from her debut album, ?Lion of Panjshir?, but now you'll know it from her very first documentary "We Came Home". Telling the cross-generational story of her parents and juxtaposing it with Afghanistan, Delawari has created an intensely personal film that bridges the gap between Afghanistan and America. afghan woman
Mila Pantovich: In "We Came Home" you told the story of Afghanistan through, not only your music, but the music of the country; was that always intentional or did it happen organically?

Ariana Delawari: Yes, that was intentional. When you're making a documentary, you just select lots of music, like temp tracks, and [...] I had gone through a lot of Afghan classical music, and even music I would never get the rights to, but just to give it a vibe. Once we took away any extra songs that were going to be hard to clear, including Afghan songs, it was kind of a no-brainer where I thought, "Well, if I'm going to include extra Afghan music then it should come from one of us." [The music is] an extension of what we're already creating and any of those scenes where there's driving, or it's more about Afghanistan, I wanted it to be really authentic and be from a voice within the story. I realized that the story is so personal, so I sat down with a guitar and a piano and started writing missing pieces.

MP: Why do you feel that telling the story through music was important?

AD: I think that music touches our lives and our hearts in such a deep way that is beyond logic. In this time in the world where we have a lot to face together, whether it's war or it's the environment, there's all these aspects to our lives where right now, as a planet, we all really have to come together. It wasn't even a thought, it all really just unfolded in the moment.

Whenever I talk about the film with people, there's this one moment [in the film] when we're trying to find a way to communicate and one of the Ustad's and Paloma [Udovic], the violinist who was with me, started to play back and forth, and the Ustad guides the way. We don't even know how to speak with him in our language but he just guides us and we find each other and that’s really what happened. When people see that moment, you can't even describe it in words. It doesn’t matter if the person is America, Afghan, ten years old, 80 years old, European, universally everyone who sees that moment has this feeling of, "Wow, Yes! They found it! They came together!" I feel like that's bigger than any other art form. It's just so universal. ariana delawari
MP: That was one of my favorite scenes and I was going to ask you what communicating through music, and not through words, was like. Is was a beautiful moment.

AD: Well, we were so frustrated before that moment. The footage only shows a little bit but there were other problems and miscommunications when trying to get our equipment, and all these things going on. I didn’t even think about how much those men would teach me, and teach us. Obviously on a deeper level, that’s why I wanted to collaborate with them, because I thought it was going to be more beautiful and more authentic to work with them but in retrospect, what they taught me was even deeper.

MP: Do you think that the music angle enables a broader audience - those who may be turned away from politically-themed documentaries - to experience the film?

AD: I hope so. This, again, wasn't even a conscious decision because I was documenting my journeys, and within my journeys I made an album and I'm a musician so of course it's part of the film. I'm just as American as I am Afghan and I grew up, as you see in the film, listening to Madonna and when I started playing guitar when I was thirteen, I wanted to be like Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. I wanted a piece of that aspect of American culture, especially 60s/70s counter-culture, peace and movement through music. That was just a part of my life. I feel like that's a very American thing. That is not really part of Afghan history. Music [in Afghanistan] is thousands of years old and it's very beautiful and powerful, but there hasn't been a movement in Afghanistan through music the way there was in America. I may not have even necessarily had the intention of using the music to do that, I think it just automatically does because it’s coming out of my life. I'm happy that that can happen because it's good for everybody.

Photo Credit Lauren Dukoff ariana delawari live
MP: How long did the entire process take, from when you first began shooting footage to when you finished the album?

AD: Ten years.

MP: I've read that while you were recording the album in your parents' dining room there were armed guards outside the doors. I like that you didn't focus on that side of the process because it seems like showing that danger would have almost given the adversary more power. Was there a reason behind your choice to omit those images?

AD: I guess I just didn't even think about it. It was so normal to the experience somehow. Part of the reason why we had to have armed guards was because of the position my dad has in the government. It's just part of what I expect of our lives there. I guess I didn't include it because I don't really think it's what the story is about. In telling the story of making the album, when people ask me how I made the album, I did tell them that because it was important for them to understand the risk. It was a different time, we really didn't know what was going on, and I had my American band mates there and I felt really responsible for them and concerned for their lives. [In the] film we only had so many minutes to tell this cross-generational massive story, and we needed every second we could have and I didn't want to put anything in there that was just sensationalist or there just because of the point. There is a moment when we talk about a bomb going off in a police car and we put that in there cause that's what happens and it's just how it is there. And you'll see in the film that it was really matter of fact: we went out to do some errands, we came home, we heard about a bomb. We kept that in there because I felt like that’s part of life in Kabul. That’s part of what everybody experiences.

Photo Credit Hollywood Pro Photography ariana delawari music
MP: I was born and raised in San Diego but since my father was from Montenegro, my home was a blend of two cultures but I never felt a force or pull from either side; did you ever feel torn between two cultures growing up in LA?

AD: Yeah, that's the thing, it was always just natural. Even when I was little, my mom's from New Jersey and Afghanistan and my dad's Afghan, I didn't even notice their accents until I was in High School [laughs]. My friend was like, "Both of your parents have really strong accents," and I never even noticed they had accents. It's just part of being Afghan and part of being American. So many of my friends have parents from different countries. I was just watching MTV and going to Birthday parties and doing very suburban American things, and also immersed in my Afghan culture and the politics of Afghanistan - but I didn't even notice, it was just my life.

When 9/11 happened there was such a divide in the world and I felt it personally. I felt it inside of me and it made me sad because I was like, "But I'm not divided, I'm all one thing." So, that's when it became my purpose to make sense of the division and to go, "Okay, I have to find a way to bridge it because if people like me, who are from both cultures, don't bridge it, than who's going to do it? It has to come from our culture and people who understand both parts of it."

MP: That must have been very difficult to be stuck in the middle. AD: Yeah, it was really bad. I went to school and I remember hearing really racist things. I had to really make an effort to not react because I remembered thinking, "Don't get angry because people don't understand. If you get angry, you're just gonna make it worse but…you're a story teller Ariana, go tell a story about it." So that's what I did. That's why I did it.

Photo Credit Lauren Dukoff afghan children
MP: Home is a very big theme of your record, and certainly the film, when did you begin to feel of Kabul as your home alongside Los Angeles? Was it prior to your ever visiting?

AD: It didn't happen until I went there and the second I went there, it became home. It became home even deeper every trip and this last trip it was so powerful. It's not even just the place, it's the people too.

MP: In watching the film, I very quickly grew to really care for your parents (it's a very realistic and deep love story between two people who understand the reality they live in and what needs to be done); how are they doing now?

AD: Yeah, they're such opposites and they're still so in love and I think that's why [laughs], cause they're just so different and they're really comical. That was also a really important thing to me; as much as there is some of this political stuff and intensity and war, we really did want the comedy to come through. My mom is hilarious, she's such a character. We wanted all of those nuances to come through because again, I feel like those are the differences where someone actually relates. Whether they're Afghan or American or not, whatever they are, everyone can kind of relate to those funny love stories and parents and their weird quirks. We really wanted all that in the film.

Photo Credit Ariana Delawari  ariana delawari movie
MP: I loved the story about how they met and how your mom wasn't actually attracted to your dad at first, but to his friend.

AD: Yeah, she was into the nomadic chief [laughs]. She still talks about it, she teases him and she'll just talk about it to get in a little dig. It's really funny, it reminds me of my friends when they're dating someone and they're trying to make them jealous; my mom still does that. [laughs]

MP: How comfortable was your family in your filming them?

AD: [laughs] Well, they got used to me. My mom, when we finished the film, she's like, "Oh, Ariana! You could have at least told me to put some makeup on! I look like sh*t in the whole film!" And I was like, "Mom, we didn't even know that we were making a film a lot of the time, it's just how it went." She laughed, she doesn't really care. My sisters, I remember last year when all the crazy stuff was happening with my dad and I would just show up with my camera and my sisters would be like, "Ugh, Ariana, please don't. Why are you filming?" Once the film was done they were like, "Oh my god, thank god you were filming, that’s such an important part of the story and it really tells you another aspect of it."

Photo Credit Lauren Dukoff ariana delawari we came home
MP: At what point during the filming did you decide to put it together as a documentary?

AD: As we were going to make the album, I was also writing a screenplay with my sister, who's a producer on the film. We started talking about a screenplay about my parents, and that started happening right after my first trip…I think it was 2003. So I was documenting Afghanistan and I was collecting all this stuff, and my sister and I were talking about a screenplay about our parents. We went to go make this album and that was going to be the documentary, and then we sat down and I was like, "Oh, well I have years of interviews of my parents cause I was going to write this screenplay." And we start watching these interviews - the interviews were so real because we really weren't making a documentary. I was like, "We'll never get this from an actor, we'll never get this even from my parents now if they know that’s why were interviewing them." I thought to myself, "There's nothing more authentic then those interviews…and I had all this old footage of my dad and there's nothing more passionate and authentic than those real interviews with him in the 80s. We can try and recreate that with a feature film but why would we wait? We have all this information and that would take too long."

Then it became really exciting because I had so much old footage of my childhood and my father and the 60s and my parents…and the archival footage that we found. The aesthetic of the film was different film stock, different periods of time, different mediums, because it really shows you how historical it is. This really fuzzy old VHS clip really gives you the feeling of Los Angeles in the 80s or this great footage of the 60s…all of it became an aesthetic and a really important part of the film.

Photo Credit Hollywood Pro Photography ariana delawari
MP: When you started getting some real recognition for your album, “Lion of Panjshir”, did the media's attention make you uncomfortable at all after all you had been through on your journey?

AD: Yeah, it still does [laughs]. I feel so protective of Afghanistan and I feel so responsible to say the right thing because of all the friends I've met there, I love so dearly. I mentor artists there, I have friends there, I want them to have their voices. So at the time of the album I just felt horrible. It was just a really hard time. I didn’t see so much hope [in Afghanistan]. I felt so devastated about Afghanistan and it was so bittersweet to get attention personally when the subject of what I cared about was doing worse.

Once I finished the film, I started to feel great. "Now I can finally share this story, the full story!" This last trip that I went on and played the [Sound Central Rock Festival] was so magical cause I got to see a new energy that’s emerging. Young people making music, and I made friends with all these young bands and I was so excited for them, and I got to play shows for them. I'm really just finding my identity and one of the subjects of my films is a lot to do with identity, and this larger context of homes, the many homes we have all over the planet. I'm just trying to see myself as a person in this world and everywhere I go I want to feel like I'm home, and everywhere I go I want to make friends and I want those friends to feel like home with me. Any opportunity that comes to me now, I just really want to see it as: how do I create a bridge? How do I create understanding and peace and bring people together to celebrate each other?

Photo Credit Lauren Dukoff ariana delawari performance
MP: How did you partner up with David Lynch?

AD: Well, he came to my very first show ever. I had been making music and playing music forever, but I never shared it. [I did] this show and I was nervous and I get up and I'm like, "Oh my god, David Lynch is here...he's one of my favorite artists of all time." His wife now, who was then his girlfriend, brought him - she was my friend - and after [the show] he said, "I want to produce your album." I totally didn't believe him. So we went to Afghanistan, we made this album, came back, and I was at dinner at his house one night and his wife was like, "He has something to say to you." He said, "I should have been producing your album!" I was like, "I didn't believe you! Do you want to do one song?" And he was like, "Yeah, let's do one song but make sure it's a great one!" So, we worked on the song "Suspend Me" and I was blown away with what he did with it. I was so excited and then he ended up mixing all of it and putting it out on his label. It was such a good decision. He has the most amazing musical ear.

Photo Credit Amanada Charchian afghan residents
MP: You were invited to speak at Tedx Kabul; how did that go?

AD: Oh my gosh, it was so incredible. There were so many speakers and they were from all different parts of society…talking about everything from architecture to a children's school, to one woman who was a French-Afghan talking about a story of helping a young boy who was a refuge and the struggle of trying to help him. There was a circus of children performing, there was this really awesome heavy metal band...there were so many incredible stories throughout the day. It was so innovative and so exciting. I got to speak for half of my talk and then play a song. I really spoke about my love for Afghanistan and how my identity shaped my art.

MP: What style of music is your upcoming album?

AD: It's completely different. It's really modern. It's electronic and it's really ethereal, and I'm really excited. I worked with a friend and I'm really happy with what we created. This is a much more universal album, its totally about love, very universal in theme. There aren't any songs specifically about Afghanistan. I also wanted to experiment with sound a lot, so I got to do that with this one. I'm sure I will also do Afghan music as well, but once I made “Lion of Panjshir”, that was my baby and now I feel really free to make music and films and art about anything.

Photo Credit Ariana Delawari ariana delawari
MP: You appeared in a number of television shows, like "ER" and "The Sopranos", prior to "We Came Home" - do you have any plans to continue pursuing acting or filmmaking?

AD: I do. I intensely studied it for…it's been like 13 years, and I was really seriously pursuing my acting career and I pretty much gave that up because I wanted to make this album. I realized that the film I was making and the album, it was really important and the timing was important. I pretty much made a promise to myself that I would put everything on hold until I finished this story. So now I'm kind of in this place in my life where I can do anything. I feel free to make different music, to act, to do everything and I really love acting. I love it in a deep way that's beyond, "Oh, I wanna be a movie star." For me it's the most compassionate and challenging art form, more challenging than music or filmmaking, because you don't have anything but your imagination and your body. I feel like when it's at its best, it's the most honorable art form because you're really being as compassionate as you can be. So, I hope I get to play some interesting parts in the future.

Photo Credit Lauren Dukoff ariana delawari
MP: What do you want your legacy to be?

AD: My biggest living hero was Dr. Jane Goodall and I got to meet her when I was 21, and I met her at a really important moment in my life. She was in my life then and I kind of lost touch with her, but I then I actually interviewed her for the film. [I didn't] put the interview in because it was taking us too far out of the story, but I'm sure I'll be able to put it up in the extras later. I got to go visit her chimpanzee sanctuary at Ngamba Island in Uganda last year because I was there with this nonprofit organization called The Voice Project, and I was so moved. There's only…150 to 300 thousand chimpanzees left in the world and when she started her work I think there were at least one million, maybe more. A century ago there were maybe two million. I was so moved to see this woman who has dedicated her entire life to preserving these beautiful animals for our planet. Even though we've lost so many of them, she still keeps going and still has hope and she's done so much for them and has touched so many lives beyond the literal work that she did with her life. My favorite artists are the artists who touched my heart and changed my life somehow, so if I can make the kind of art that touches peoples hearts, makes them think, and creates positivity in their lives and in the world, then I'll feel really good.

MP: Is there anything about you or your work that you want people to understand the most?

AD: I feel like we're on the planet to enjoy each other and to explore and discover and not be afraid. My journeys to Afghanistan came about because I was not afraid, and I went into villages and refugee camps and I just made friends and it works. People just felt the truth in my heart and they opened up their lives to me. I feel like that’s really the solution to most of the problems in the world - not having fear and seeing life as a journey and a celebration.

Photo Credit Grace Oh

Mila Pantovich

An avid traveler, Mila Pantovich lives in the UK with her husband and cat. She has been working with JustLuxe as a writer and editor since 2012 and has been featured in several publications. Follow her travels on Instagram: @MilaPantovich ...(Read More)

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