Review: This docudrama
presents the return home of Afghan-born but now-Canadian journalist, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira) as she tries to return home to Kandahar
(never scene on camera) in southern Afghanistan,
Along the way she encounters brutal and heartbreaking situations among the
people, devastated not just by the war with the Soviets, which they have won,
but wars among the tribes (the Pashtun and others).
Apparently the Taliban are already in control. Early on, she encounters a
woman asked to take her young son out of a madrassah
when he fails his recitation lesson. That scene is particularly chilling: the
boys, while rocking back and forth almost spastically, are required to chant
or sing memorized portions of the Koran, but this boy has failed to remember
them; the “teacher” accuses him of laziness and says he will never become a
mullah. Later, there is a black man who emigrated to
to function as a “good Muslin” and pretends to be a doctor (the medical
scenes are like confessions). Then there is the assembly of amputee war
veterans and the spectacle of artificial limbs dropping onto what looks
almost like an extraterrestrial landscape, with its relentless collage of
browns and sepias, from parachutes. The Red Cross volunteer impresses us with
the simplicity of the survival demands of the people, something anyone going
to that part of the world will find humbling.
The demands of the religion – the absolute obedience
to the literal word and public observance—comes across.
Canal is one of Europe’s
largest studios. Why will European
film companies take the financial risk for a film like this when American
studios won’t touch it?
A related film is from French journalist Christophe de Ponfilly, Massoud the
Afghan (2001, distributed from France
by Interscope). This film traces the history of the
Northern Alliance Ahmed Shah Massoud from the 1980s
when he (ironically, along with Osama bin Laden) helped repel the Soviets
from Afghanistan, to 1997, when he was countering the Taliban, while at the
same time the Clinton administration was trying to negotiate a pipeline deal
for Standard Oil of California with the Taliban. This film is likewise
visually stunning with its panoramic scenery of a place “at the ends of the
Earth.” The shelling of Kabul in
the early 90s is documented with grisly detail, as the city turns into a
likeness of Hiroshima. Intimate
scenes in Massoud’s tents are shown, as well as the
hardships on the Afghan people, with at least two on-camera amputations.
In early 2004 United Artists released the docudrama Osama, directed by Siddiq Barmak and the first
significant film made in Kabul
since its liberation from the Taliban.
The setup is Afghanistan
after the Taliban has taken over after driving out the Soviets. A twelve year
old girl played by Marina Golbhari, masquerades a
boy to try to find work after her father is killed and mother dispossessed by
a Taliban raid. Eventually she winds up in a disturbing bathhouse scene where
an creepy old grizzled mullah with a pot belly and
gray beard and chest hair teaches young boys to “clean themselves.” She runs,
as the boys become suspicious about her feminine hands and feet (not sure how
this makes sense before puberty). She is “caught” after she climbs a tree but
cannot come down. She escapes death by stoning by being married off. The
on-location cinematography is surreal, with its subdued browns and grays and
surrounding mud brick ruins; the contrast of women massed together in blue burqas and chanting gives the effect of being on another
planet, as do the scenes of boys huddled in madrassahs
and rocking as they memorize the Koran. The treatment of women is supposed to
feed the notion of family in a theocratic patriarchy; but it is inconceivable
to our culture how such practices could promote family as we know it, or
compel the interest of men. This film
was selling out at the only theater showing it in Washington,
DC, in the Dupont Circle neighborhood.
Yet distributors are afraid to put these kinds of films in larger
The Beauty Academy of Kabul
(2004, Shadow Distribution, dir. Liz Mermin, 75
min, PG). I recall doing a project report on Afghanistan
in ninth grade in 1958. Little did I know, or maybe I did. The only safe way
to see this part of the world – a place at the end of the earth -- seems to
be independent films like this. A few women travel to Kabul
in 2003 to set up a beauty shop and training center for female vanity, which
is still repressed because in practice Afghan women are still very
subservient to their husbands, living in arranged marriages. The film makes
one ponder the idea that the female is to receive attention to beauty, but
not often so in much of the Muslim world. A few of them had emigrated from
Afghanistan in the late 1970s when Kabul was a relatively bustling city. We
know the history of the Soviet occupation, Osama bin Laden, and the Taliban
takeover in 1996, as well as the war in 2001.
The people in this landlocked Central Asian country look mostly
Caucasian, rather Mediterranean and only slightly darkened in this
ultraviolet-laden high country, the men sometimes rather hairy, as in Iran.
Down to Kabul (2005, PBS
Wide Angle, dir. Simone Aaberg Kaern, 45 min) has a young woman Simone in Copenhagen
flying a piper cub all the way to Kabul (dealing with military AWAC's more
than once) to meet an young Afghan woman who also aspires to be a pilot.
Since the dispersal of the Taliban in 2001, this has become possible for
women, but an afterword on the show warns that Taliban-style religious
fundamentalism is returning to Afghanistan.
The Kite Runner (2007, Paramount Classics
/ Dreamworks / Participant, dir. Marc Forster,
based on the novel by Khalid Hosseini) with Khalid Abdalla as the writer Amir, detailed blogger review here.
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007, Universal /
Participant, dir. Mike Nichols, book by George Crile, “Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert
Operation in History,” 97 min, R) is another satirical history lesson,
about how Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson wheeled and dealed
(in a style befitting the “Dallas” TV series) the CIA
into supporting the mujhadeen in Afghanistan to
overcome the Russian invaders over a period of about eight years throughout
the Reagan years (the 1980s). He constantly flies back and forth between Washington,
Israel and Egypt
(with repeated turnaround trans-Atlantic trips), and certainly must have
endured a lot of jet lag and vascular leg cramps. Everyman Tom Hanks plays
the Congressman, with a flair that suggests he could be anybody (even me).
Born again anti-Commie fundraiser Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) deceives
herself into believing that Christianity can save everything (even if she is
not above seducing Charlie in a bathtub), and Charlie finds himself
negotiating around all the treacherous hatreds in the Middle East, with a
main point being that American weapons cannot be used, but that Israel has a
cache of captured Soviet weapons that the rebels can indeed use. He has to
fight off an unjust investigation by Rudy Giuliani of rumored cocaine use.
The Soviet attack scenes (filmed in Morocco), with shots of maimed children,
are quite compelling and shocking, and the film could have used a wider
aspect ratio than the standard 1.85:1 that is used here. Philip Seymour
Hoffman is bearded compadre Gus Avrakatos. Geeky weapons analyst and ex Naval officer
(one wonders why ex-) Mike Vickers is played by the lanky Christopher Denham,
who in one scene carries on a chess simultaneous exhibition (calling out
moves from away from the board like “Bishop to Queen Night Seven” while
talking to the fibbies, and then hollers, “Don’t
trade Queens with Me.” That saying is
prescient for what follows at the end, when Wilson
says we evicted the Commies but f__ked up the end
game. Did anyone notice that Wilson
was also Ronald Reagan’s middle name?
CNN’s “Lifting the Veil” (2007) from its Special Investigations Unit,
with Sharmeen-Obaid-Chino returning to Afghanistan
to followup on “Beneath the Veil” in 2001 by Saira
Shah, blogger review here.
and Tim Herrington pair up to document “Into
the Valley of Death” (2007 / Vanity Fair/ABC,
6 min), link,
to accompany the Jan 2008 Vanity Fair
article. Junger relates that most of the good will
toward some American journalists in Afghanistan
has evaporated; the fighting is hand-to-hand with shovels and foxholes, like
Army basic. One US
soldier had been given a chance to bypass jail after trouble with the law.
That didn’t used to be acceptable (that is a pretext of the recent film
“Atonement”) but it is going on now with the shortage of troops for repeated
deployments (“don’t ask don’t tell” doesn’t help).