“Frontrunner” is a documentary focusing on Dr. Massouda Jalal, who made history as the first woman to seek the presidency of Afghanistan. Dr. Jalal ran for office twice: in 2002, during the interim election to establish a local government following the U.S. invasion (she came in second to Hamid Karzai) and in 2004, when she came in sixth among 17 candidates.
Dr. Jalal is certainly a brave woman, considering the Afghan culture’s tradition of misogyny and the blatant U.S. support of Karzai’s leadership. The film points out Karzai’s control of Afghan media and finds local police tearing down Dr. Jalal’s campaign posters – not exactly the manner in which a democracy operates – while Dr. Jalal bitterly notes her efforts are not being supported by Washington, despite the White House’s jawboning about the need to improve women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Yet “Frontrunner” is surprisingly sloppy in its presentation of Dr. Jalal’s story. The film fails to acknowledge her full background: it is never stated that she is a pediatrician and a psychologist, or that the Taliban prevented her from teaching at Kabul University. The film also ignores that she rejected an offer to become a vice president after the 2002 election.
While “Frontrunner” follows Dr. Jalal’s 2004 campaign at great length, it doesn’t follow it with great depth – the viewer is uncertain where she stands on many issues, and the few campaign speeches excerpted here are so vague that they could be used by candidates in any country. Too much of the film is wasted with shots of young men handing out campaign literature, Dr. Jalal being driven from place to place, and various political billboards around Kabul. At 90 minutes, “Frontrunner” is too loose-limbed and leisurely to have serious impact. Had the film run 60 minutes, with a tighter focus on the subject, the results would’ve been stronger.
On second thought, maybe not. Truth be told, Dr. Jalal is not a charismatic politician – even Western media experts brought in to create her commercials acknowledged the other candidates have more wit and confidence in front of audiences. If Afghan voters weren’t ready for a woman president, perhaps they will change their minds if a female candidate with a little more personality and forcefulness should step forward to take the reins of leadership.