I point to the title, more specifically, the background behind the title. It’s a bit vintage, but depending on your age, you may still recognize the black strip with perforated edges on both sides. Film. That kind of shooting.
But there’s gunfire, too. Mere months before September 11th, eleven-year-old Fadi and his family are fleeing Afghanistan in the dead of night because the Taliban has given their father an ultimatum: join them or else. So Fadi’s family pay human traffickers their entire life savings for five spots on a bullet-ridden truck that will smuggle them and many others out of the country. Fadi hopes their getaway will be successful, but with the sudden appearance of the Taliban, his younger sister Miriam gets separated in the mad scramble to get on the truck. There’s no going back. Once out of Afghanistan, Fadi’s family have no choice but to seek asylum in the United States.
Fadi’s father, a devoted Pukhtun whose moral code is to protect the women in his life, is convinced that, as head of the family, it’s his fault his daughter is lost. Fadi’s mother, who was very ill during their escape, blames herself for being unable to watch little Miriam. Noor, Fadi’s teenage sister, is convinced she’s at fault because she’s responsible for her siblings. And every day, Fadi longs for the courage to tell his family the truth: it’s his fault Miriam is gone because he was the one who was holding on to her hand that night.
On top of surviving a new school, different culture, and post-9/11 anti-Muslim sentiment, what’s interesting is how Fadi deals with his (misplaced) self-imposed blame. It’s a heavy burden for an eleven-year-old to carry, but he’s tough. Instead of running to his parents, Fadi hatches plans to return to Pakistan to find Miriam himself.
The plan with the highest chance of success depends on winning a prominent photography competition. The top prize is a trip to Africa, China, or India. Which is just next door to Pakistan. As a rookie shutterbug, I really enjoy when Fadi explains the tenants of photography, which he learned from his father: how to frame shots, choose camera settings, take risks, and find that extra dimension that makes a good picture great.
Because Fadi desperately needed to win the competition and such an event was so unlikely, the outcome and resolution to the photo contest, the search for his missing sister, and the lifting of self-blame was far better and even more satisfying than I had anticipated.
P.S. I was also reminded of The Unforgotten Coat, which is also about a boy in a new environment with a flair for photography, and how photography acts as a lens for how we perceive our world, whether to enhance reality or capture it.