This Sunday, the short film “Day One” by Henry Hughes is competing for an Oscar in the short film (live action) category.  

War movies are often told from the perspective of a soldier or a group of soldiers and they tend to follow a familiar arc: young, idealistic men become cynical and alienated.

When director Henry Hughes returned from his 2nd tour of duty in Afghanistan as a US soldier and began studying film, he wanted to share his experiences through a different perspective, something more nuanced and original.

The US invasion of Afghanistan demolished the country’s civic society and the impact will be felt for many years. Henry worked on a community-level as a soldier, so he was never involved in the bigger-picture strategy. But he has strong doubts about the effectiveness of any nation building enterprise.

These concerns and the many bonds he formed while in Afghanistan colored in his reflections as a veteran.  

While sketching out his film, he recalled the Afghan American woman who served as a translator during one of his tours.

Image: Henry Hughes as soldier in Afghanistan w/ translator

She had no war experience. She was going through a divorce. She was much older than the soldiers she was surrounded by. And, as a woman, she faced the dual pressures of being placed in two highly masculine cultures: an all-male platoon and deeply conservative Afghanistan.

On the one side, she felt uneasy around young, crass soldiers just out of high school who sometimes resented her for getting paid more than them even though she was a skilled specialist.

On the other side, she was forced to cover her hair and constantly encountered men who refused to speak with her or treated her as inferior.

Sometimes, these pressures came to seem frustratingly similar, as when (in real life) Henry told the translator that it was probably best for her to wear a hijab and she responded by calling him “captain mullah,” a reference to a very religious Muslim.

Other challenges faced the translator.

Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, so she often had to use picture books to form a mutual understanding. Plus, last names aren’t always used in the country, so identifying specific people was tricky.

There was also the stress and confusion of reconnecting with her Afghan heritage while the country was blasted apart by war.

For Henry, the translator’s experience was the ultimate “fish out of water” story, of someone feeling utterly disoriented by culture shock.

Image: Henry Hughes

This outsider status allowed him to explore the intricacies of identity, what happens when different cultures collide, and, even more fundamentally, what it means to be human.

As Henry said, citing a phrase he heard, “War compresses the greatest opposites in the shortest space in the smallest time.”

It is here, in this particle accelerator of opposites clashing, that Day One takes place.

Day One follows the translator’s intense first day on the job as the platoon searches for a local terrorist.

While Henry says his film doesn’t have a political agenda, it arrives at a time of widespread hostility towards Muslims.

He’s personally angered and dismayed by the xenophobia, but to the extent that his film has an overt message, it’s this:

“I experienced some things that were quite sublime, and I wasn’t sure if they were disgusting or beautiful or both. I wanted to translate that hyperbolic life that you experience in war. I wanted to share a story of how it felt, what it means to be human. There’s an inherent universal message in that. People are people.”

When you strip away cultural markers, every person is fundamentally human and every human has the same right to equality and fairness. 


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