Sunday, 14 August 2016

Afghanistan movies

I often watch movies while painting, in part to get inspiration for how my figures should look.  I recognise of course that movies are fiction and I try not to take them too seriously. Depending on how familiar I am with a particular subject I may even take offence at particularly egregious errors, or I might just smirk condescendingly.

For Afghanistan, there is only a limited number of films actually available, although that is changing as the past 15 years of Western nations involvement there is making its way through the Hollywood studio machine (just as Vietnam inspired films all through the 1970s and '80s).  With apologies to fans of Restrepo, but none for fans of Ross Kemp, all the films I'm going to mention in this post are fiction; I'm not counting documentaries. 

One of the things I noticed is that most of the films I managed to find were not so much about Afghanistan, but about foreigners who were in Afghanistan.  That is, the protagonist has a journey of discovery (or not, depending on the film), but it often seems to be the case that the film's setting is coincidental:  Afghanistan and Afghans figure as background but seldom touch on the protagonist's journey.

A good example of this is one of my all-time favourite Afghanistan films, The Man Who Would be King.  

The film was made in Morocco, and while it is a great adventure fantasy, it has nothing to teach about Afghanistan or Kafiristan (known as Nuristan since the Afghan king conquered it in the 1890s and brought the light of Islam to the people there).  I watched it once in Kandahar with people from all over Europe.  As the opening scene started, there was a shout of "Marrakesh!" from the others watching!  But still a great adventure and one well known to NWF gamers.

Other films set in Afghanistan (fully or partly), that I have enjoyed include:

Soviet era:

  • 9 Company.  I see this as a Russian version of Full Metal Jacket.  Lots of fun, and there is a great scene where the recruits are instructed in elements of Afghan culture:

  • Charlie Wilson's War.  Lots of fun again, Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman clearly had great fun making this film.  It is obviously from an American view point,and shows how America won the war against the Soviets.  It might give Americans a nice warm and cuddly feeling to know that they provided the means for the mujaheddin to defeat the Soviets, but people who pay the blood price for something seldom respect those who pay a gold price for the same thing!  (didja get the GoT reference?)

  • In an earlier post I mentioned how much I enjoyed rewatching Rambo III and The Living Daylights, so here are their trailers for completeness:

  • And then there is The Beast (aka The Beast of War), about a Soviet tank crew wandering around Afghanistan.  It's a good, taut and exciting action movie, and actually makes an effort to talk about the situation in Afghanistan, including one Afghan character who tries to explain why he supports the Communist government.  

  • There are several more Russian films about the Soviet war, but I haven't yet hunted them down.

Moving on to the Taliban era, there are a few really excellent films, that are actually about Afghans living in Afghanistan.  So obviously I'll start with another Russian film.  Kandagar is based on the true story of the crew of a Russian cargo plane that was held hostage for about a year in Kandahar, before they managed to orchestrate their own escape.  I haven't seen it (haven't found a subtitled or dubbed version yet) but it's on my list to find.  (the full movie in Russian is available on youtube)

Osama and Kandahar are both filmed with Afghan casts.  Osama is the story of a little girl who needs to dress as a boy to earn money for her family to survive.  It was filmed in Kabul in 2002 with amateur actors.  It's grim and depressing and shows just how miserable life under the Taliban was, especially for women.

Kandahar was filmed in eastern Iran, near the Afghan border.  All actors were again Afghan and again amateurs, this time recruited from refugee camps located in Iran.  The main character is played by Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan refugee who became a CBC reporter.  It's almost as grim as Osama, as it tells the story of a woman trying to reach Kandahar to prevent her sister's planned suicide.

After those two amazing films, the Kite Runner almost seems an afterthough.  The main character here is far more self-involved and less sympathetic.  It's still a good lesson on life in Afghanistan, but doesn't measure up to the raw emotional power of Osama or Kandahar.

Moving on to the post-Taliban era, there are starting to be more films made.  Most of these films focus on foreigners in Afghanistan.

Kajaki, released in North America as Kilo Two Bravo, is the gripping and intense story of a British patrol that gets stuck in an old minefield.  It's a fantastic movie, thrilling and exciting and suspenseful, but doesn't really tell much about Afghanistan per se.  

Lone Survivor is about US Navy Seals in Afghanistan.  Again, exciting and thrilling, but more about the Americans than it is about Afghans.

Hyena Road is a Canadian movie (woo-hoo, yay Canada!).  It's a Paul Gross movie, not quite so overblown as Passchendaele.  Mr Gross has found time to fit in a love story, and lots of exposition about the situation in Afghanistan.  It's kind of curious, with some stuff that doesn't fit (the love story is an unnecessary and unbelievable add-on to the story), but overall I liked it.  Mostly filmed in Jordan, Gross' team managed to capture lots of background shots from Kandahar, so it looks pretty good.  I liked and recommend it.

Zero Dark 30 has lots of action in Afghanistan, in addition to Pakistan, Washington and other locales.  Good story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, won't really expand on your perception of Afghanistan (but it might influence how you see Pakistan!).

Within the last couple of months I've seen a couple movies about Americans in Afghanistan.  Rock the Kasbah is Bill Murray doing what he does best, improvising in front of other actors who don't quite know how to react to him.  I like Bill Murray doing that sort of thing, so I liked the movie.  But it ain't good representation of Afghanistan.  Hollywood (or at least the portion represented by directors like Barry Levinson) likes to pretend that anywhere foreign is obsessed with American culture, so we see things like Bill Murray's Afghan underworld contacts driving around in a 1960s American convertable, and the singer that Murray's character is trying to push onto the Afghan Star stage sings Cat Stephens songs.  That sort of thing (plus Kate Hudson's 'hooker with a heart of gold') breaks the credibility gap for me.  It's fun but it sure ain't real.

A much better film is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, probably because it was based on the actual memoirs of an American journalist who was based in Kabul in the early naughts.  She was also a consultant, scriptwriter and producer of the film.  The main character's experiences seemed authentic to me, and I've just bought a copy of Kim Barker's book that inspired Tina Fey to do the movie.  Recommended, with the qualifier that it's more about expat life in Afghanistan than it is about Afghanistan itself (I have the feeling that a similar film could be made about journalists or other expats in Baghdad or Saigon).

On a similar line, I've stumbled across a French sitcom set in Kabul.  Called Kaboul Kitchen, the stories revolve around a Frenchman who owns a nightclub in Kabul.  He sees himself sort of like Rick in Casablanca, and the show presents him negotiating the challenges of running a nightclub, providing alcohol for his patrons in Islamic Afghanistan, keeping his swimming pool full of scantily clad young ladies whilst dodging the morality police, and then dealing with his daughter, who has shown up to open a girls' school.  Lots of black humour and politically incorrect stuff in this series.  Production values are not as high as in the movies listed above, but it's fun to watch.  Based again on a true story (creator Marc Victor was a journalist who ran a restaurant in Kabul in the naughts), and has some credibility based on his experiences.

My last entry in this list is my current favourite.  It was another surprise finding.  The Horsemen (1971) is a Hollywood epic, starring Omar Sharif and Jack Palance.  IT's the story of a buzkashi player who is injured in a grand match in Kabul.  I started watching it with low expectations, but quickly realised that this movie was actully filmed in Afghanistan back before all the troubles started in the mid-1970s.  The story is ok, but the background scenery is what blew me away.  If you want to see Afghanistan, just watch what's going on when the main characters are not on the screen.  I could not even find a trailer for this one.

I'm sure there are other films I've missed; let me know in the comments if you think I should anything else to my list!  I know there are at least a few out there.