Tag Archives: afghanistan

AFI Documentaries 2016 Reviews

My reviews of the 2016 AFI documentaries

AFTER SPRING

Directed by Ellen Martinez, Steph Ching

Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan, was built in 2012, a year after war broke out in Syria. It now houses most of Syria’s refugees—about 80,000 residents, more than half of whom are children. Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching’s documentary After Spring, executive produced by Jon Stewart, offers a look at life inside this city of tents. After Spring, unlike some other documentaries on the camp, does not romanticize the “look, there are shops and cell phones and restaurants” aspect of Zaatari. In fact, it underlines the bittersweet reading of this—that this camp has existed for so long and that with only 1% of refugees worldwide being granted asylum, this camp is life, and not some temporary limbo they must pass through and endure. A Korean teacher builds a Tae Kwon Do school for the children, but education and care are hard to come by—not because Zaatari is mismanaged but because Zaatari relies on the largesse of the World Food Program and other donors for any of its services.
After Spring offers a look at life of precarity, uncertainty, and struggle, that is, sadly, the closest semblance to normalcy and home for millions of people worldwide.

THE LAND OF THE ENLIGHTENED

Directed by Pieter-Jan de Pue

The Land of the Enlightened is a docu-fiction, a fairly unusual film format. Shot over seven years on 16mm film, it’s stirringly beautiful and fairytale-like. A band of children (who jokingly call themselves “brass bandits”) live in an old abandoned Soviet base in Afghanistan and survive by trading in opium, discarded shells, lapis lazuli, and any other wares they might chance upon during their caravan-robbing escapades. Director Pieter-Jan de Pue also offers footage from one of the last remaining U.S. military bases, while a narrator intersperses stories of a great king in Afghanistan’s history. One of the film’s most visceral scenes shows American soldiers shelling and shooting at a hill, where someone is hiding. The image of nature being blasted into smithereens by a relentless onslaught of firepower makes for heavy emotional viewing and offers a unique take on what war actually looks like. The children are neither powerful nor powerless—they neither want your pity, nor can one forget that they never had a childhood. They drift through the wreckage of a war-ravaged reality, salvaging and scavenging.

TEMPESTAD

Tempestad is a trenchant commentary on the human cost of government corruption in Mexico. Mexico-based director Tatiana Huezo (The Tiniest Place) tells the story of two women—Miriam, a mother and a Cancun Airport worker, arrested on false charges of human trafficking and sent to a prison run by the Gulf Cartel, and Adela, a circus clown, whose daughter disappeared and has never returned, likely abducted by a cartel. Huezo never shows Miriam; instead the film is an evocative riff on everyday life in Mexico—images of people riding a bus, people working at a market make for an innovative (for documentary film-making) technique, which isn’t as befuddling to the viewer as one might think. Tempestad allows the voices of the two women to weave a story devoid of patois and bare in its brutality. Miriam describes herself as one of the country’s many “pagadores”—people literally made to pay with their lives, so the government may pretend it is doing its job. The “prison” she is sentenced to asks Miriam’s family to pay $5000 to “respect her life” and $500 each week thereafter for her “keep.” Those unable to pay are murdered. Tempestad unsettles in a profound way; villains shift shapes and the people are the ones buffeted about in this powerful tempest.

Of Men And War AFI Documentary Review

My review of Of Men And War for the Washington City Paper

The second feature film by French director Laurent Bécue-Renard (War-Wearied) offers an unprecedented and intimate look at PTSD and some of the war-ravaged men and women suffering from it. Set in the Pathway Home, a treatment facility in California for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the film benefits from its fly-on-the-wall approach, squarely turning its lens on the group therapy sessions and residents’ interactions with their families, which allows the soldiers to tell their own stories. They seem unable to extricate themselves from the war zone, forever held hostage and unable to unsee the horrors they’ve witnessed. They describe feeling “embarrassed, small, defective… crazy.” The degree of access granted the filmmaker is truly amazing, and it’s even more impressive considering the degree of trauma with which each of these soldiers is wrestling and the Herculean effort required of them to share something so antithetical to the “be stoic about it” military ethos. An unflinching exploration of the “collateral damage” of war trauma, the film poignantly illustrates that there is nothing collateral about it. Of Men And War is one of today’s most engrossing and gut-wrenching commentaries on the high cost of our recent military conflicts.

The Kill Team Review

My review of the documentary The Kill Team

Director Dan Krauss’ The Kill Team is an absolutely enthralling tour-de-force documentary that stares unblinkingly down the ugly, dirty face of war, offering a sobering look at its specters. There are no heroes to be found here, only the very banality of extreme violence. As Specialist Adam Winfield says, “There are no good men left here.”
The Kill Team is the story of a platoon that made headlines in 2010 after it was discovered that 5 soldiers in the group had essentially murdered 3 innocent Afghani civilians “for sport.” The film focuses on Specialist Adam Winfield who had attempted to alert authorities to the “kills” taking place, only to himself be charged by the Army and face a lengthy prison sentence. The absurd dichotomy of someone being labeled a whistle blower and a murderer in the same breath lies at the crux of The Kill Team’s main argument: the military can be a ruthless machine that often victimizes its own, not just the enemy.

film3-TheKillTeam

The main story line of the film is Winfield’s court battle, but all of the other people involved in the murders are also interviewed, except for the mastermind and leader of the unit, Sergeant Gibbs. Spc. Jeremy Morlock’s seemingly emotionless account of how “we straight murdered that dude,” is chilling if taken merely as a sign of his apathy to violence. Looking behind the mask, we get the idea that the macho culture of the army he has been reared in has taught him to suppress feelings.  He frequently references “the ideology of the infantry world,” this idea that life in the Army was supposed to be some kind of a glorified Top Gun-esque escapade of patriotism and heroism, which by default involves the killing of the enemy. It’s certainly a novel perspective: all too often we are led to believe that the people who enlist actually seek to avoid combat. Morlock belies that stereotype — he describes an entire platoon of thirty-some men that idolized Sergeant Gibbs, who asked him to help them get “kills” as well. Gibbs’ collecting of finger bones for a grisly war trophy necklace does not strike them, seemingly, as wrong.
The Kill Team offers a scathing – though unstated – condemnation of the Army who essentially made a scapegoat out of Winfield, who had all along attempted to alert the higher-ups, labeling him not enough of a conscious objector. Winfield brings up a salient point: “We tend to handle things in-house. Had I reported it, it would have come right back down the chain-of-command to me.” As his lawyer points out, the military justice system is not impartial: they are essentially the judge and the jury. Furthermore, the film puts into question just how rogue of a platoon was this or was their conduct commonplace, as the soldiers suggest and an issue only because they were caught. The chilling concept of a “drop weapon” is introduced. It is a weapon that is off-the-books and can be “dropped” on anyone, making him/her appear as an aggressor and justifying any violence committed against him/her. Gibbs apparently had access to a whole cache of this kind, including grenades and AK47s. The film raises the interesting question of why uphold the seemingly legality of a war when the very concept of it implies a level of chaos and violence that renders such track-covering pathetic in the true sense of the word.
There is little question about Sergeant Gibbs motivations—he calls the Afghanis “savages.” But what about the other members of the platoon, bullied into submission by him and unable to dissent for fear of their lives? The terrible face of the “war on terror” is made poignantly human here: “Nobody is innocent here. We are getting blown up every time we go up there to talk to them or build them a well or a school.” As Morlock explains, “the constant pressure to having to kill and being shot at is overwhelming. It is impossible not to surrender to the insanity of it all.”
The Kill Team is easily one of the most thought-provoking documentaries this year and certainly one of the best ones on the war in Afghanistan. It’s a lot more than the plucked from the headlines story of a rogue platoon; it’s the living embodiment of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs:”
Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor
The film is a testimonial to the kind of damage caused for a cause that is impossible to name or understand.

The Global War on Tribal Islam: An Interview with Akbar Ahmed

Originally published here
Also here
“After 9/11, I dedicated myself to creating bridges of understanding between different cultures and faiths. The relationship between the West and the Muslim world seemed to especially be fraught by much misunderstanding,” says Professor Akbar Ahmed. For his latest book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Professor Ahmed focused on tribal areas: The peripheral areas between states and on the communities living between borders.  Ahmed provides an exhaustive survey of tribal cultures across North and East Africa, Yemen, and Southwest and Southeast Asia. The title of the book is a metaphor; the thistle was how Leo Tolstoy described the tribes living in the Caucuses in his book Hadji Murad because, like the flower, they were thorny and prickly. The drone, on the other hand, is a symbol of globalism and the epitome of technological advancement.
In The Thistle and The Drone, Ahmed explores in-depth tribal history, culture, code of honor, and tribal Islam, an Islam that is very different in nature from more mainstream branches of the religion. Drawing on 40 case studies that Ahmed and his team of student researchers interviewed and analyzed, Ahmed couches his discussion in the dichotomy between center and periphery.

The first main finding of the book is that terror towards the West is very much perpetrated by tribal people. 90% of the 9/11 hijackers were from Yemeni tribes. The rhetoric used by Osama bin Laden and many others has always been very tribal in nature, Ahmed suggests.  Thus, he says, “we [the West] are fighting one kind of war when it is an entirely different kind of war to them.” The second major point is that Ahmed believes that there is a way that the tribes can be pacified via peaceful and diplomatic means, citing the example of the Aceh in Indonesia or the relations between Scotland and England.
The central argument of The Thistle and the Drone is that “war on terror” is ultimately a war between a central government and a periphery. In Ahmed’s view, the “center” is nearly always in direct conflict with the tribal societies—a war of the state vs. its domestic antagonists, if you will. These tribal societies are often fighting against modernity or increasing encroachment upon their territories and way of life– the Rohingya in Burma, the Tuareg in Mali, or the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example. “These tribes already have turbulent relations with the central government, which has failed to bring them into the nation, and the war on terror has only exacerbated this tension.” In addition, their own fellow Muslims often look upon the tribespeople as backward as well. This central vs. periphery tension is something Ahmed sees as fixable but not through the use of drones in the war on terror. “Drones have in essence become a symbol of Western arrogance. A far cry from the surgical-precision weapons they are described as, they have devastating moral costs. We often don’t hear about what it is like to live in an area where drones are buzzing overhead all night long—how often the women and the children suffer…”

Dirty Wars Film Blurb

Blurb on the film Dirty Wars for BYT’s Top 13 Movie Superlatives of 2013

Jeremy Scahill, a veteran war journalist and the national security correspondent for The Nation, shines a light on the shadowy outfit known as JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, better known as the people who killed Osama bin Laden in this especially timely and weighty documentary, with the recent controversy over the drone program. JSOC, in place for decades, was created to essentially function outside the purview of any legal or military rule, but Dirty Wars makes a strong and shocking case for it reaching the apogee of its power during Obama’s terms, enjoying a level of impunity unheard of before, targeting assumed terrorists, launching drone attacks, and killing innocent civilians in countries with which the US is not even officially militarily engaged. Having chanced upon the very concept of JSOC in 2010, Scahill is stunned to see it come defiantly into the spotlight, taking credit for bin Laden’s capture, and turning its previously-camera-shy commanders into heroes. Ultimately, Dirty Wars, as the title indicates is about global war being waged in the name of national security by an organization with almost no accountability, except to the President, and one prone to night raids and “kill lists” without regard to nationality or legality. This was the case with American-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who were both killed by drones. Dirty Wars is the grotesque flipside of Zero Dark Thirty: piles of bodies do nothing to make this kind of warfare seem just and blow the concept of “collateral damage” to smithereens.