In August 2021, as the U.S. withdrew forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban took power, many people fled the country. But despite having U.S. citizenship, the then 73-year-old Mahbouba Seraj stayed. The journalist, activist and co-founder of Afghan Women’s Network had been forced to leave her country once before, but this time she would remain.
“If you educate one woman, you educate her whole family,” Seraj explains. “And the women of Afghanistan are absolutely dying for education.”
Anna Coren, an Emmy-winning journalist for CNN, soon learned of Seraj and set out to tell her story in the documentary short “The Noble Guardian,” which recently won best documentary at the 2023 L.A. Shorts Intl. Film Festival and is eligible for the 2024 Oscars. Coren was there to capture the joy when the schools reopened to girls for the first time in months — and the devastation when they were shut down hours later.
“The Noble Guardian” also tells the incredible story of Seraj, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this year.
Born into royal lineage, Seraj and her husband were imprisoned by the Communist Party in 1978 and eventually moved to the United States, before returning to Afghanistan in 2003.
The film marks Coren’s directorial debut, and she knew early on she wanted it to be a film rather than a news segment. She and her director of photography had covered Afghanistan for years and were looking for a way to tell the story. The first time she had a Zoom call with Seraj, she knew she had her way in. “It was just electric,” Coren recalls. “I just had goosebumps, the hair on the back of my neck was standing up and I knew: this woman was a documentary.”
Seraj admits she wasn’t initially comfortable being the center of attention, particularly as the film goes into private details of her life she hasn’t discussed publicly. But talking to Coren convinced her. “The way she talked to me, I realized that if there is any time in my life that I’m going to share this story with the people of Afghanistan and the women of the world, this is the time to do so.”