Alumna Mo Scarpelli explores Afghan journalism in documentary

“Frame by Frame” will be premiering at SXSW in Austin, Texas on March 15.

Afghanistan, if at all portrayed, is often depicted as a hopeless war-torn country by media. But to MU alumna Mo Scarpelli, “it was beautiful.”

Scarpelli’s upcoming documentary film, “Frame by Frame,” follows four local Afghan photojournalists — Massoud Hossaini, Farzana Wahidy, Najibullah Musafer and Wakil Kohsar.

Through these four photographers, Scarpelli documents the fears among Afghans that the world will forget about their country and the hopes that local photojournalists will be watchdogs for their own country.

“(Journalism) will be in the phase of uncertainty,” Scarpelli said. “It will be, despite the fact that things are very hard for them to do right now. But I think it can happen.”

From 1996 to 2001, Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, and during that time, photography was a crime. After the ouster of the Taliban from politics, which lifted the ban, a promising Afghan media has materialized, but is struggling to be a free press.

According to BBC, there were 68 private broadcasting stations as of early 2014. However, 2014 has also been the deadliest year for Afghan journalists since 2001.

Scarpelli’s documentary, co-directed with Alexandria Bombach, is about the power of local Afghan photojournalists struggling to create and preserve their profession in Afghanistan.

She became interested in Afghanistan after her co-director suggested that they go. Before this, she said she didn’t have an opinion one way or the other about the country.

She said she only heard about it through news reports or news that someone from her hometown, Big Rapids, Michigan, had been killed or wounded while serving in the country.

“I didn’t have a picture of Afghanistan,” Scarpelli said.

Before leaving to go to Afghanistan, Scarpelli said she was worried about bombings and security issues. But when she entered the country, she found it filled with breathtaking beauty and hospitality. She said that, in almost every frame she shot, the backdrop was beautiful.

Scarpelli graduated from MU in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She documented homelessness in Columbia and followed a pregnant 19-year-old to realize the humanity behind situations that were often looked down upon.

There was one inspiration that she said drove her into filmmaking — the True/False Film Festival, an annual documentary film fest that takes place in Columbia.

To Scarpelli, attending True/False solidified her future goals.

After graduating from MU, she worked for charity:water, a non-profit organization that has helps deliver clean water to developing countries such as Haiti and Ethiopia.

She founded Rake Films, a documentary film production house that has produced videos such as “Exposed: The Race Against Tuberculosis.”

In addition, Scarpelli has worked as a freelance reporter with her works appearing in various publications from the BBC and The Wall Street Journal to the Africa Review and the Huffington Post. She has filmed or photographed in many countries and on many topics ranging from Sierra Leone’s fight against cholera to New York City’s charter schools before she ended up in Afghanistan.

She chose to film a character-driven documentary about photojournalism in Afghanistan because she wanted to capture the humanity behind Afghanistan’s emerging media and to challenge existing notions.

As many foreign news stations are pulling out of Afghanistan with the withdrawal of U.S. troops, she hopes that Afghan journalists will be able to represent themselves and be the watchdogs.

Scarpelli is still working on “Frame by Frame” and said she will be working on the film’s outreach and distribution for most of 2015. Along with continuing this project, she plans to release shorter multimedia pieces on other subjects.

On March 6, she spoke at MU’s fourth Based On A True Story series, held at MU in conjunction with True/False. She was a panelist on war and conflict journalism, and advocated for the emphasis of the humanity behind conflicts.

Professor of German Brad Prager is the co-organizer of Based on a True Story, which was established to explore the intersection between contemporary documentary filmmaking and journalism.

“This is a particularly fascinating area because many documentary filmmakers are now asking questions that used to be asked by journalists,” Prager said.

Prager said that the conference engages the audience about the grey areas of documentary filmmaking and cover the expectations and limits of the industry.

Scarpelli said she believes that everybody has “the shared human experience of overcoming a lot of obstacles to help free press or to better your own country.”

“Frame by Frame” will be premiering at SXSW in Austin, Texas on March 15.

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