Filmmaker Dan Hall on Documenting LGBTQ+ Communities Living Under Taliban Rule
Imagine living in a country where simply existing could jeopardise your life. For LGBTQ+ people living in Afghanistan, this is their lived reality. For many, secret communities and discreet relationships are the only way they can exist under the oppressive Taliban regime. In Channel 4’s powerful new frontline documentary, UNTOLD: Gay Under the Taliban, director Dan Hall takes a sensitive look at the personal stories of four LGBTQ+ Afghans fighting for survival.
In 2021, the Taliban recaptured the rule of Kabul. After UK and NATO allies withdrew forces, the Taliban regime overthrew the Kabul government, beginning a rule of oppression and tyranny enforced particularly on women, non-binary and LGBTQ+ communities. However, the imposed prohibition of LGBTQ+ people is not new to Kabul; the lawful criminalisation of same-sex relationships in Afghanisation has been present since 2018. A 43-page report issued by Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International revealed that LGBTQ+ Afghans face imminent “danger” and risk being targeted due to their gender identity or sexual orientation. Channel 4’s bold new documentary shines a light on the suppressed voices of the LGBTQ+ community and how they are “held prisoner” within the borders of their home country to an unforgiving regime. As an openly gay man, Hall combines the documentary format with anonymity to preserve the safety of LGBTQ+ voices, sharing their harrowing experiences of living in occupied Afghanistan as part of an underground community.
Alongside producers James Rogan, Soleta Rogan and Mark Hedgecoe, Hall has partnered with Channel 4’s new current affairs, UNTOLD, a platform for “remit-defining, noisy” journalism aimed towards a youth audience, exploring subjects from inequality and racism to climate change and the housing crisis. In UNTOLD’s Gay Under the Taliban episode, Hall and Channel 4 seek to dismantle the damaging perspective that LGBTQ+ people are images of their trauma. Instead, through animation and heartfelt storytelling, the episode humanises the community and connects viewers with real stories. Hall and his team have spent years dedicated to fighting violence towards LGBTQ+ people. Now, in this combined project, Hall and Channel 4 wade into unknown territory in the hopes of sharing the brutalisation going on behind the scenes of a political regime. We speak to Hall to understand the nuances of filmmaking around such pervasive topics, and discuss how the team have navigated anonymity, safety and trust with the communities in occupied areas under the Taliban.
How did the collaboration with Channel 4 come about?
I have a podcast In the Key of Q, and last year did a Black Queer America special looking at the unique intersectionalities of these identities. This year I wanted to do another special, this time about queer Afghan musicians. I needed musicians who could speak English and do so freely, so therefore were no longer in Afghanistan. A miscommunication with a journalist meant that instead my details were shared with hundreds of non-English speaking non-musicians, stuck in Afghanistan.
Although I couldn’t use their stories in the podcast, their plight was so moving that I sought a different way to amplify their plight. I finished making a programme with Rogan Productions for Channel 4 Commissioner Adam Vandermark, when in passing I talked about the falling apart of my Afghan podcast idea. Adam was immediately interested and within weeks we were in production.
What motivated you to create this documentary?
These people are in a most terrible position, and I wanted to amplify their stories.
How did you and Channel 4 prepare for the trip to Kabul and how did you tackle issues around safety?
As an openly gay man it is impossible for me to go to Kabul safely, and so our footage came from two sources: the contributors themselves and a brilliant cameraman Jordan Byron. Jordan is an expert in filming in Afghanistan and brilliantly manages his own safety and risk. For the contributors the underlying instruction was to never put their own lives at risk. They knew better than me what this meant, and I trusted them to manage their own risk. But I cannot stress enough that almost daily I would remind them to not sacrifice their footage. And once I had downloaded material instructions were sent for them to delete off their phones at their end.
Since these communities are living in fear, how did you go about building trust and forming relationships in Kabul?
I had built these relationships before the programme existed via WhatsApp as they came in during the podcast pre-production. I checked in daily to hear their stories of struggle over weeks and eventually months to build that trust. But probably, most importantly, was [that] from the very outset I told them, “I cannot get you out. But there is a chance that I can make your story heard.”
Could you tell me more about how you balanced the storytelling with anonymity?
I took advice from Steven Wignall at the FDO. And in addition to that we hid faces with animation, and voices with actors. We needed to ensure that jigsaw identification wasn’t possible, so all sorts of small changes were made to the contributors’ stories.
How did you ensure that the stories were sensitively told?
My executive producers James Rogan, Soleta Rogan and Mark Hedgecoe were brilliant at helping me shape the contributor stores so that they would have the most effect, and with the most respect and sensitivity. Rogan [Productions] have such a brilliant culture of caring for contributors first and foremost, and for doing so during and after production. Steven Wignall at the FDO was also hugely helpful in making sure our stories didn’t compromise our contributors’ safety. His advice was invaluable.
What did you have to consider when thinking about how to portray this LGBTQ+ community and creating an opportunity for people to identify and empathise with these stories?
I was told from several sources that Afghanistan doesn’t have an LGBTQ+ culture and that queer identity was a Western construct. Frankly I thought this was utter rubbish. I was speaking to queer men and women, people who fuck other people of the same sex and enjoy it. Give that whatever label you want, but it’s nonsense to try to silence LGBTQ+ voices by claiming they “don’t really exist outside of Western culture”. And the people I was speaking to thought this was rubbish too. And they’d know. So the first battle was to show that there was LGBTQ+ presence at all. And to have people tell me that LGBTQ+ culture wasn’t real, when the Taliban thought it was, and was killing people for it, well frankly it made me angry. And still does.
As for what to consider when showing the community, we had a fundamental problem of not being able to show faces or voices. This was solved with animation and voices. But then we also had the issue of [having] a relatively short duration [of time], so I picked stories that I felt really covered as wide a range of the Afghan LGBTQ+ experience as I could.
It was also important that they weren’t just “victims”. They were people who loved movies, music, pizza. It was crucial to include these everyday, human elements in the film. In fact, one of these moments – where ‘Habib’ chooses to buy perfume over food – is [what] I find [to be] the most emotionally challenging moment of the whole piece.
Were there any poignant moments that we don’t see captured in the documentary?
The FDO gave me the honour of telling ‘Jabar’ that he was going to be collected from his squat in Islamabad and taken under the care of the UK government; that a taxi would take him to a hotel in 20 minutes, that an RAF jet would fly him to the UK, that he would have a new life in a place of safety. To tell this to a man who has fought against fear and oppression all his life was possibly the most incredible moment of my career. He recorded for me his immediate, tearful reaction. But as his face was in the shot it was impossible to include in the finished film.
What's your biggest learning curve from this project?
When making traumatic programmes, open up to friends and family. And (as I proudly did) when the channel offers counselling, take it.
So many LGBTQ+ people have had their rights erased. How do you and Channel 4 plan to build on this film to ensure these voices aren’t lost?
I have spent my adult life fighting LGBTQ+ prejudice. It was also one of the key themes in my Emmy / BAFTA / RTS-nominated feature film, Freddie Mercury: The Final Act, directed by James Rogan, which I produced. So in terms of building on this film I’m going to carry on doing what I’m doing to find injustice and homophobia, and bring it into the light. On a more personal level, I continue to check in with our four contributors at least weekly. Although sadly ‘Noor’ is still uncontactable.
How do you want people to feel after watching this UNTOLD documentary?
Anger. I hope it’ll make them speak up when they witness LGBTQ+ prejudice. Because the insane and horrendous world faced by Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ people doesn’t come overnight – it’s drip, drip changes and losses of rights. And we must fight that – allies and queer people.