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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Stories from an Afghanistan we hardly knew



Gerald Schmitz

On Sept. 29 Canada’s three main political party leaders engaged in a two-hour debate on foreign policy issues without once mentioning Afghanistan — our intervention which lasted a decade and was the costliest, in lives and money, since the Korean war. One might be lulled into thinking there was nothing to discuss. Yet that same day Taliban insurgents took control of a major Afghan city, Kunduz, for the first time since the 2001 western invasion that toppled their regime. Afghanistan’s situation is dire enough that the country is the second biggest source, after Syria, of desperate refugees flooding into Europe. Moreover, the question of Canada’s treatment of Afghan detainees has not been settled as argued by a recent report, Torture of Afghan Detainees: Canada’s Alleged Complicity and the Need for a Public Inquiry, released by the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The Afghanistan Canadian politicians no longer want to talk about was featured in five movies at the Toronto film festival, some more illuminating than others, and is also the subject of the award-winning documentary Frame By Frame that premiered at Austin’s South by Southwest festival in March.

Hyena Road (Canada)

With a big budget by Canadian standards and heavy promotion, writer-director-producer and star Paul Gross (Passchendaele) brings to the screen a war story set during Canada’s combat mission in violent Kandahar province. The opening sequence has the leader of a sniper team, Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland), take out a Taliban laying an improvised explosive device, followed by intense scenes of Canadian troops under fire. Fortunately though, the movie exudes none of the flag-waving rah-rah superiority of 2014’s American Sniper. Indeed, “there’s no winning,” concedes the senior intelligence officer Pete Mitchell, played by a white-haired Gross who introduces bits of context in voiceover and dialogue. Moreover, several strong Afghan characters have important roles, chiefly a veteran ‘mujahid’ (Neamat Arghandabi), known as “The Ghost” and “lion of the desert” for fighting the Soviets, whom Mitchel seeks out as an ally, using his fixer nicknamed “The Cleaner” (Nabil Elouahabi) as a go-between to arrange meetings. The Canadians’ road-building project also involves dealing with a local official “BDK” (Fazal Hakimi) — reputed to be in the pay of the CIA — whose corruption and treachery in playing both sides lead to a bloody conclusion. It’s one “hell of a road” all right.

A subplot of secretive romance between father-to-be Ryan and his communications controller Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne) at Kandahar Airfield HQ seems primarily designed to add painful poignancy to a final heroic sacrifice. Still that’s a minor distraction from the realistic portrayal of military operations and complicated relationships with the local population, a verisimilitude impressive for a film shot in Jordan and on Canadian Forces Base Shilo in Manitoba. Moreover, the tone of sobering ambivalence about what can be achieved befits a mission that faced long odds whatever its intentions.

Kilo Two Bravo (U.K.)

This war-is-hell docudrama account focuses only on what happens to western soldiers, specifically British paratroopers charged with guarding the Kajaki Dam in Helmand province. No Afghan faces are shown apart from the opening few minutes and no geopolitical context is explained. Director Paul Katis opts for a highly realistic recreation of the events of Sept. 6, 2006, when soldiers on patrol stumbled into a minefield entering a wadi (an intermittently dry riverbed). During the Russian occupation huge numbers of mines were dropped from the air, many of which washed down into these wadis. Ultimately four mines were set off causing grave injuries to a number of soldiers as shown in extremely explicit scenes of gory dismemberment, trauma and raw expletives. The situation was made critically worse by operational complications resulting in a four-hour wait before helicopter rescue. The actions of medic Paul “Tug” Hartley (played by Mark Stanley) during that time were certainly heroic. All but one of the wounded survived the ordeal.

Such movies may be a useful reminder of the horrors experienced by some Afghan veterans. Yet despite 14 years of western intervention, they could never be shot in their actual settings because the country is far too dangerous. At the TIFF screening, where the real Paul Hartley was present, director Katis cracked that the Jordanian location they found was conveniently close to a five-star hotel. While reliving our wartime sacrifices in comfort we need to spare a thought for the Afghans who are still being blown up at a terrible rate.

Thank You for Bombing (Austria)

Originally planned as a documentary, Austrian director Barbara Eder delivers in three chapters a severely critical look at what happens to journalists covering war stories. The context is explosive allegations of American soldiers burning a Quran leading to popular outrage among Afghans. In the first chapter veteran Austrian reporter Ewald is ordered to Kabul to investigate when in the airport he spies a fugitive Serbian war criminal who killed his cameraman in Bosnia years earlier. His editor, however, has no interest in old war stories. The second chapter takes us to Afghanistan where ambitious American female television journalist Lana takes crazy risks and sacrifices her dignity to get the lowdown on the two American GIs, Fitz and Bergman, implicated in the Quran-burning scandal. The third chapter follows strung-out war correspondent Cal who clashes with superiors and his wife. After going on a reckless journey to Kunduz that kills his driver, back in his Kabul hotel room he watches a suicide bombing attack with excitement. The story only leads when it bleeds.

Eder paints a rather ugly, cynical picture of the news business, of pack journalism in war zones, and of those who can become addicted to covering the trauma of war. No doubt there is some truth in these portrayals and to Eder’s credit some scenes were shot in Afghanistan. But the film lacks balance. It ignores, for example, the kind of the inspiring dedication demonstrated by veteran Canadian-born Associated Press correspondent Kathy Gannon, almost killed in a 2014 attack, and others who should be thanked for their rigorous reporting on Afghan reality.

Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr (Canada)

I’ve already praised this documentary drawing on co-director Michelle Shephard’s book Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr. The Toronto Star reporter has doggedly covered the case of Canada’s most famous child soldier for over 12 years. On July 27, in Khost, Afghanistan, Khadr almost died in a firefight with the Taliban, subsequently accused of throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier. He and his family have been portrayed as al-Qaeda sympathizers. Khadr is unsure of what actually happened and as he says, “you can’t really regret things that you didn’t have control of.” What is certain is that he was subjected to torture from his initial detention at Bagram through many years in the notorious Guantanamo prison that President Obama has promised to close. It took four years for Edmonton lawyer Dennis Edney to be granted access to him. Eventually Khadr pleaded guilty to a war crime in a flawed American military trial as the only way to be returned to Canada over the repeated obstructions of the Harper government, which opposed his May 2015 release on bail into the custody of the Edney family. With Khadr finally able to imagine a future, their determination and support on his behalf is a remarkable aspect of this continuing story.

A Flickering Truth (Afghanistan/New Zealand)

I’ve also praised New Zealand writer-director Pietra Brettkelly’s documentary in a previous column. She spent years overcoming obstacles in order to bring the story of the Afghan Films archive to the screen. A key figure in its restoration is the expatriate in charge, Ibrahim Arify, who was imprisoned during the Soviet era, and who returns to his home in Germany when he consider conditions have become too dangerous. Another compelling figure is the elderly Isaaq Yousif, the faithful caretaker who has survived multiple regime changes. What Brettkelly discovers is a vibrant cinematic history. As she told Scott Macauley of Filmmaker Magazine: “It was such a wonderful relief and revelation when we started to see the films, that there was diversity of stories, social issues like abuse, drug use, rape were dealt with in film, and the representation of women was much more interesting than what I’d assumed.” A team of local archivists remains who have created a mobile cinema van to bring classic film clips to rural villages. Though there are many “no-go” areas, it’s heartening to see children’s eyes opened to such flickering truths from their country’s rich cultural heritage.

Frame By Frame (Afghanistan)

As an amateur photographer, I really loved this amazing documentary ( by American filmmakers Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli who in 2012 followed the work of four courageous Afghan photojournalists: Massoud Hossaini, a former refugee and Pulitzer Prize-winner, now with the Associated Press; his wife Farzana Wahidy who focuses on the situation of women; Najibullah Musafer who risked his life during the Taliban era when photography was banned and now teaches at several universities; Wakil Kohsar who records the plague of heroin addiction and returns to his native Panjshir Valley in the lead-up to elections. They represent a photographic revolution that captures the diversity of their country up close and sheds light on its dark corners. With westerners leaving, they also realize that, as the filmmakers say, it’s up to Afghans to “take ownership of Afghanistan’s story and reveal a humanness that is rarely captured by foreign media.”

Seeing through Afghan eyes illuminates more than war dramas filmed elsewhere. Getting those images is a dangerous vocation — 2014 was the worst year in Afghanistan’s history for violence against journalists. Massoud has reason to worry that the world will forget Afghanistan again. We can’t say we weren’t warned.