The Art of Flying to Kabul
In 2002, the performance artist Simone Aaberg Kærn did what no one thought was possible, flying a small canvascovered plane 6000 km from Copenhagen to Kabul. FILM talked with Aaberg Kærn and co-director Magnus Bejmar about "Smiling in a War Zone – and the Art of Flying to Kabul", an artistic statement about freedom sustained by the dream of flying.
Af Annemarie Hørsman
Publiceret i FILM #47, November 2005
It can't be done, other pilots told Simone Aaberg Kærn and Magnus Bejmar. Even with a more modern plane and more money, we wouldn't make it halfway, they said. The two of them nevertheless managed to make the remarkable journey, which they have now turned into a documentary.
"Smiling in a War Zone – and the Art of Flying to Kabul" is a modern fairytale about Aaberg Kærn's stubborn struggle to build an air bridge across two continents. We follow her persistent negotiations with air traffic controllers and generals about airspace access, and we are with her in the cockpit when she finally takes off for Kabul, despite a definite no-go from the American Air Force. All this to give a girl in Kabul a chance to fly.
The dream of flying
For Aaberg Kærn, a performance artist, the right to fly is a crucial ideal of freedom. Her project emerged in the wake of September 11, when access to airspace was strictly cut back. "I have defined the air as my artistic field. The air should be free. We should be able to send our dreams up there and move around there freely. So I was thinking about how to make a project that would win back the air."
One day in January 2002, as she was sitting in her usual café, she read an article about a girl in Afghanistan who wanted to become a fighter pilot so she could strike back at the Taliban. "All at once, several threads came together at a single point. I immediately knew this was my project. I wanted to go to Kabul and take this girl flying."
She finally got underway on 4 September 2002. With her in her old Piper Colt '61 came Magnus Bejmar, her boyfriend, codirector and cameraman. The flying theme has been an art practice and a productive creative utopia for Aaberg Kærn since 1996, when she began a project about American women pilots in World War II.
"I'm interested in what drives our civilisation. When you lie down and look up at the sky and you see the birds, you think, Wow, what if that was me up there? Basically, that’s what humankind has always been doing, in different ways, including the use of drugs. But it also means that we have always been trying to do something beyond what we are capable of. It's a sign of the utopian, the sublime. Sometimes, the result is Stalin or Hitler, since destruction is an inexorable part of it. But it also makes room for creative utopians. Such a person was Otto Lilienthal (1848-96), the great German glider pioneer," Bejmar says.
"Lilienthal proclaimed that everyone should fly, no matter what the cost. He constructed a pair of giant wings and made over 2,000 flights with them before it finally killed him. A few years later, all his data were read on the other side of the Atlantic by two bicycle smiths in Ohio, the Wright Brothers. They got a plane in the air and 66 years later man was walking on the moon. We must allow for creative utopians to have their dreams, if we want society to move on. Here's this 16-year-old Afghan girls who dreams of becoming a fighter pilot. Just think if girls who take up flying in Muslim societies and end up starting a democratic development. You never know."
Naivety as a tool
The thought of making a film came up early on in the project. It also quickly became clear that this should not be a traditional documentary. "We wanted to make a film that would evoke the same feelings as feature films that can make you a little sad, a little happy and maybe a little annoyed," Bejmar says. "So we coined the term docutale. Reality told as a fairytale. Which fits the performance concept well, too: if you prod reality a bit by adding a new element to it, it shifts, which forces you to look at it differently. So it is with Simone, the flyer. She is the object we add to the world, that people have to relate to as we go along."
The sequence about the flight to Kabul, in particular, displays the two directors' whimsically playful filmic language, employing a wealth of musical pastiches, trick shots and archival footage. "The film is high-pitched from the beginning, as when Aaberg Kærn proclaims, 'The skies must be free!' That’s extremely important," Bejmar says. "But at the same time it's ludicrous, deeply comical. Here's this one person in her little plane going up against the USA, telling them, 'Don't forget freedom, goddammit, now that you're going to war!'"
"It provides some distance and also a smile," Aaberg Kærn continues. "People love 'The Little Prince' for the same reason. This little character leaping out and getting a chance to make a statement in the space we've created. But by adding all these movie effects, such as a massive symphony orchestra out of 1940's Hollywood, we show that we are playing, which in turn fosters discussion of the actual events in the film."
For Aaberg Kærn, naivety is also an essential tool in even making the trip. "For me, it's about using the sensation of falling in love as a spearhead," she says. "You have to be pretty cynical and strategic to be able to carry out this kind of project, but it also has to be honest on a very basic level. It's the same glow we have when we fall in love, a kind of madness, but it protects us. I've developed a method for putting myself in that frame of mind and switching it on and off when I set out to do something. "That way, naivety becomes a role – and a technique. It's my performance character and it's a technique that makes it possible for me to even finish the trip. But it's also a technique in making the film, for taking you into the story up to the point where Farial first says hello."
Aaberg Kærn and Bejmar finally touch down in Kabul's airport on 6 December after a two-month journey. They meet the girl, Farial, but they also come face to face with traditional Afghan clan culture. Although they do manage to take Farial flying, the last part of the movie makes a virtue of showing utopia stranding on the beauty of its own idea.
"What interests me as an artist," Aaberg Kærn says, "is taking an idea and confronting it with reality. In that meeting, things emerge. The main frame around the film is utopia hitting actual mud, real matter. We crash from 10,000 feet directly into the Afghan reality, which is tough and incredibly concrete. After all, it's a pretty antisocial project, because we're using Farial. When we first meet her, she is a pretty good sacrificial lamb, answering the requirements of my story. Then Afghan clan structures enter the picture and try to lock her down more and more the whole time we're there."
"As it turns out, there are already two sisters in Afghanistan who are helicopter pilots," Bejmar adds. "We come to Afghanistan with a completely developed idea that Farial will be the first girl in that country, after the Taliban, to fly. Here we come with our artistic statements and our dreams, and then reality intrudes and pops the bubble. We could have edited that part out, but we think it’s kind of cool to be kicking ourselves a bit. Here we come and, hell, they're already flying!"
Although the performance strategy isn't new, this type of "extreme expressionism", as Aaberg Kærn calls her method, can still challenge our notion of the clearly defined artwork. But for Aaberg Kærn, the distinction is insignificant. It's more a question of scale. Her performance strategy is still a frame and, within it, she tries to create a dialogue. Similarly, the film is a frame that creates its own meaning, but it doesn’t contain the whole meaning.
"I want to ask the question of where the artwork lies, but not answer it," she says. "When you sit in the cinema, you have to ask yourself if the art is getting Farial to fly, or what it means to use her for this purpose. That’s what I present."
"The most interesting thing about the art space is that, because it's still difficult to really define, it's a space that has people's ear. If it's an artist speaking, a lot of people will be willing to listen, which offers opportunities for telling stories."
"That's also why art can hit entirely different targets than a political mission operating with a very obvious agenda. I'm not interested in providing any answers about what's right and what's wrong, because there is no simple truth. But it is interesting to make a statement that others can build on. I think the film is a good contribution to the debate about individual freedom, for instance, which is such an often-heard claim in our part of the world. But in a lot of other places, it's not like that at all. There are good sides and bad sides to it."
Meanwhile, Simone Aaberg Kærn and Magnus Bejmar hope their film will provide an elemental pleasure: the joy, beauty and freedom of flying your own plane. "We're all sitting here now looking at Google Earth. That's what we do in real life: go out and see the world from above," Bejmar says. "If the film is able to convey even the slightest sensation of that, that would be great. Smile a little, live life, stop complaining. You can be upset about the war in Afghanistan or women's rights and write a letter to the editor and sit in a café and mope for three months, but come on, do something, move in a different direction, make a difference!"
COSMO FILM DOC APS
Founded 2003 by Jakob Høgel, Tomas Hostrup-Larsen and Rasmus Thorsen. A sister company to Cosmo Film, the latter being now fully devoted to producing fiction. Cosmo Film Doc is specialized in creative documentaries for broadcast and cinema distribution in Europe. Aims at becoming a major European player in the field of internationally financed, creative documentaries.
SIMONE AABERG KÆRN
Born 1969, Denmark. Performance and video artist. Her work often includes the art of flying as a theme, as in "Taraneh Heading for the Stars" (2001), a dual screen video installation and short film, about Iran's first female pilot and in "Sisters in the Sky" (1999) for DR TV. "Smiling in a War Zone" is her debut as a documentary film director.
Born 1965, Sweden. Radio and TV journalist, has also worked as a director and writer for the theatre. "Smiling in a War Zone" is his debut as a documentary film director.
Contact Magnus Bejmar : at magnus.bejmar(at)hotmail.com