The Inspiring Story of Afghanistan’s First Independent TV Network

A new documentary looks at the history of TOLO and the media in Afghanistan—watch an exclusive clip from the movie

  • Share
  • Read Later

As an Oscar-winning producer of the 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, Eva Orner had a role in shedding more light on the torture that went on in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. But when it came time to return to the region for another  project—her first as a director—Orner decided to look at a different side of life.

“Wouldn’t it be somewhat subversive to make a positive film about Afghanistan? I  thought it was time to tell a story that wasn’t about war,” she says. She stumbled on just such a story when reading about Tolo, the country’s first independent TV network since the fall of the Taliban, and the network’s founder, Saad Mohseni. Tolo’s tale became the new documentary The Networkout Sept. 27.

(MORE: Alex Gibney on Taxi to the Dark Side)

Though Orner was initially interested in the business of Tolo, she discovered that the network was doing much more than employing people. The Network isn’t really about corporate success: it’s about the way a television station can affect a country.

As seen in the exclusive preview clip above, things have changed since Tolo first went on the air, as viewers get more exposure to media. The documentary shows how shows like Sesame Street can influence literacy, romantic melodramas can influence gender relations and police procedurals can influence recruitment numbers for the actual police. Orner pays special attention to a call-in advice show for women, who often relate their marital problems; even in cases with abuse, the host cannot give them much advise beyond “buck up,” a state of things that left the director feeling conflicted. “This guy can’t give very good advice but the fact that these women get to talk to somebody is a huge step,” she says. “It shows how far they’ve come but also how far they have to go.”

Tolo’s founders didn’t get into television to influence viewers, Orner says.  “They went there really shortly after the Taliban fell, Saad and his brother, to see what they could do,” she explains. “Then the opportunity to have a radio license came up. They didn’t go into it thinking they were going to do this. As Saad’s brother says in the film, if they knew how complicated television was they never would have done it.” In addition to having to train all of their employees in a business that didn’t really exist in Afghanistan before they started, the Mohsenis have faced some backlash for their financial success and for Western influences on their programming.

(MORE: Capitalism Comes to Afghanistan)

According to Orner, Tolo now is focusing on the upcoming Afghan election and on soccer, and the Mohsenis are considering expanding in the region—but, she points out, as the American presence in Afghanistan continues to decrease so will some of the funding for Tolo. (Groups like USAID and the U.S. Embassy back some of Tolo’s programming; the movie touches briefly on the question of whether this is propaganda.) Time will tell whether Tolo continues to be as successful as it has been—but Orner is convinced its model works.

“The extent that media has changed the country on so many levels is extraordinary and I think that’s really what’s worth looking at,” Orner says. “As we look at moving into other countries, to me that speaks very strongly. Obviously media can’t replace the might of war but we’re not doing that very well. I just think this is so powerful and so simple in a lot of ways. It’s really changed an entire generation and that’s where I think the future in a country like Afghanistan lies.”