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VOA's "Symphony of Courage" Documentary Premieres in Portugal

VOA Deewa's Munaza Shaheed interviewing attendees of the world premiere of "Symphony of Courage."
VOA Deewa's Munaza Shaheed interviewing attendees of the world premiere of "Symphony of Courage."

The message at the screening of Voice of America’s documentary, “Symphony of Courage,” was one of hope, as the film’s public debut preceded an October 1 concert by the Afghan National Institute of Music, the educational home of the musicians featured in the film – and their first performance since they fled from the Taliban a year ago. The event, held at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Auditorium in downtown Lisbon, Portugal, featured ANIM and VOA speakers and drew many local residents and dignitaries.

The VOA documentary recounts the 2021 escape from Afghanistan to a new home in Braga, Portugal, of the entire school, including its acclaimed all-female Zohra ensemble.

The music will not die in Afghanistan, ANIM Director Dr. Ahmad Sarmast told the VOA film’s audience, as his students prepared to play traditional Afghan music and Western classical music selections.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban banned most musical performances following their takeover of the country and capital city of Kabul in August 2021. “Symphony of Courage” follows the flight of the last two students, teenage cousins Farida and Zohra Ahmadi, who also perform with ANIM’s all-girl ensemble and were the last students to secure passage to safety. The girls spoke in Portuguese at the documentary screening about the events of the last year that brought them from Afghanistan to their new home.

“Through their eyes and their experience, we see the struggle of the Afghan people who have temporarily had their music taken from them,” Acting VOA Director Yolanda Lόpez told the crowd at the screening. “For girls back home, the loss is compounded by the theft of their education and their very future.”

In the film, the audience saw the girls’ harrowing wait for official papers to depart the country; their uncertain journey through the streets of Kabul to the airport; and their emotional reunion with the school’s director, Dr. Sarmast, upon their arrival in Lisbon.

“I thought we captured a moment in history in a way that other news organizations hadn’t done,” said VOA executive producer and director, Beth Mendelson, in a panel discussion following the screening. “And I think this [film] gives you an emotional, behind-the-scenes look at what people went through there [in Afghanistan].”

Lόpez noted how life changed for those forced to remain under the Taliban, including the loss of what was a growing tradition of independent media.

“The loss of the freedom to create, perform and enjoy music in Kabul mirrors the loss of many other freedoms in Afghanistan under the Taliban, like freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” López told the audience. “We see this clearly each day as people in Afghanistan continue to watch and listen to VOA and often call in to our programs. We see their hunger for information and for music.”

In the VOA documentary, Farida Ahmadi speaks of her hope for the future – both hers and that of her country. “Once I become a good musician, if circumstances allow, I’d like to return to Afghanistan to show my music to Afghan children and teach them,” she says.

The theme of hope was echoed in closing remarks by Acting VOA Director López when she said, “Hope for the Afghan people – that someday they can recover their music, the education of girls like Farida and Zohra, as well as the freedom of all Afghans to express themselves.”

For a special inside look at the event, click here.