Afghanistan has rarely featured in western films, especially when compared to other foreign locales – from countries in Africa to Latin America to East Asia. This cinematic neglect is matched by the lower prominence that Afghanistan was accorded in the popular imagination and in western foreign policy during this era. Despite the shortage of films about Afghanistan, there is much to say about how filmmakers who chose this country as a setting depict Afghanistan and the people that live there. These depictions may – or may not – have helped to frame the broader cultural and political image of Afghanistan in the west. In this dispatch (the first of three in a series), AAN guest analyst Christian Bleuer reviews – from a western perspective – a variety of popular and obscure films from the pre-2001 period that take place in Afghanistan, finding both faults and merits.
Of all the source material that could have been used to create a compelling and popular film about Afghanistan, James Michener’s 1963 novel Caravans seems the best choice. Michener’s novel is, briefly, about a US embassy officer in Kabul searching for an American woman who has fled her well-educated, powerful Afghan husband and disappeared with a band of nomads. Michener was known for researching and visiting the countries he wrote about, and his books are rich in detail. While his books may not have the accuracy of an anthropologist’s dissertation, they are certainly more entertaining. Still, it could be expected that a film based on a Michener book would mostly ring true to those who know the country.
The 1978 American film version of the Michener novel was a large budget production and is easily accessible for anyone looking for a copy to watch.
However, the film differs from the novel in numerous ways. The difference that is apparent in the first few minutes of the movie removes this film completely from consideration as a film about Afghanistan:
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on the viewer’s perspective, the film-makers decided – for reasons unknown – to change the name of Afghanistan to ‘Zadestan.’ This may have had something to do with the film-shoot location in Iran, and the Iranian government’s wish to not offend the Afghan government with a film that portrays the Afghan government poorly. But that is just speculation, the true reason probably resting with the producers of the film (a search online tuned up nothing). As for Michener, he disowned the film after watching it – joining a long list of disappointed authors who watched their work butchered by Hollywood.
Caravans, as a result of the name change, cannot be considered as a film which helped to create an image of Afghanistan in the popular imagination. Instead, it could at best be consigned to the strange category of “films secretly about Afghanistan.” This places Caravans alongside such examples as the classic 1984 action movie Red Dawn, in which Soviet forces invade America, only to be confronted by school-less, unemployed, radicalised youth from a mountainous region who yearn for martyrdom in their attacks against Soviet army convoys. The result is a protracted insurgency and frustration on the part of Soviet troops:
Red Dawn as an analogy for the Soviet-Afghan War has been noted, by many, many reviewers of this film. The Soviet officer’s quote above (“It’s the same as Afghanistan”) just made it obvious for those who do not search for analogies in the films they watch.
Another category of ‘almost’ movies about Afghanistan are the films that take place on and near the Durand Line between Afghanistan and British India. These films, often featuring heroic British soldiers and ferocious Pashtun tribesmen from both sides of the border, chose a title theme and stuck with it. A sampling:
On the subject of the Durand Line, some filmmakers are not exactly sure where the border is, or if it exists at all. This confusion gives rise to a film that is – and isn’t – set in Afghanistan. It all depends on how much one considers the territory of Afghanistan to spill over the internationally-recognised borders. This is aptly demonstrated by the adventure-comedy-romance film High Road to China (1983), which possibly features Afghanistan as the location for the second of three acts in the films.
As an example of the mysteriously located border mentioned above, note this geographically-challenged conversation by the villain and his underling:
Like I said, the film is a comedy. Waziristan, and the large majority of Waziri Pashtuns, are firmly on the other side of the border from Afghanistan. Nevertheless, characters in the film continually place Waziristan inside Afghanistan.
The plot of High Road to China is quite simple: a socialite party girl living in 1920s ‘Constantinople’ needs to find her father who disappeared in Afghanistan, or the family fortune will be lost to his unscrupulous business partner and she will inherit nothing. As Turkish Airlines was not flying regularly to Kabul at the time, her only option is the oft drunken pilot O’Malley (played by Tom Selleck). Agreeing on an exorbitant price, they fly overland to the wonderfully named, but sadly fictional British outpost of Fort Kipling before landing at a Waziri khan’s camp during what appears to be the Waziristan Campaign of 1919-1920, during which British forces fought Mehsud and Waziri tribesmen.
Further ‘comedy’ can be found in both the dialogue and the ‘native’ dress costumes of the local Pashtuns:
The two main characters, a damsel in distress and her lovable rogue pilot companion arrive in Waziristan/Afghanistan in search of her father, only to find that he has moved on to the Himalayas. Unfortunately, they become involuntary guests of a rather despotic and cruel local khan played in an over-the-top manner by the British actor Brian Blessed:
If anybody is looking for an authentic representation of Afghans in this comedy, they will be sorely disappointed. The language, mannerisms and the clothes are for comedic effect only (eg, the assortment of headgear on the Waziris is unlimited, everybody seems to speak English, and the attan dance that the khan orders to be performed is anything but accurate). However, it is quite possible that some will take offense at the portrayal of the Afghans, whether as an Afghan or on their behalf. The Afghans under the command of the khan are shown as a war-like, rambunctious crowd in a perpetual state of loud noises and violent gestures. They devour meat ripped straight from a roast carcass while faux Middle Eastern belly-dancer/Indian snake-charmer flute music accompanies dancing ladies. Meanwhile, men fire their rifles through the roof of the khan’s party tent, which has human skulls on poles at the entrance. It’s quite outlandish, with obviously little attempt to authentically recreate 1920s Afghanistan/Waziristan.
The Waziri Pashtuns in this film who do not speak English choose Dari – of a sort. The only easily recognizable Dari sentence in the whole film is uttered by the khan’s younger brother, played by Peter Llewellyn Williams: Man mekhaham een zanra bekharam! (“I want to buy this woman!”). Aside from noting the further possible insult or offense against the image of Afghans, what is notable here is that both the khan and his brother are played by British actors. In fact, the actors who portray the Afghans are all either Anglo or Yugoslav. A special effort was made to cast an actress to play the slave concubine of the khan’s son, as she is supposed to be a Nepalese captive from what would have had to been the furthest plundering raid in Afghan history. Here the filmmakers cast the Filipina-American Cassandra Gava in the role of the slave girl. As for the location that was cast to ‘play’ Afghanistan, the producers chose Yugoslavia, a then still peaceful Balkan country with not particularly Afghan-esque geography.
The ‘Afghan’ segment of the film ends with the pilot O’Malley’s aerial destruction of the khan’s camp – a strong demonstration of the ability of air power to achieve end-goals in Afghanistan. Sarcasm aside, the British did actually use air attacks in the Waziristan campaign.
The trailer, shown below, demonstrates the often outlandishness of the film, as can be seen at the beginning of the preview with the bombing of the khan’s tent with his own nephew:
For the finale, the film then moves on to China, which is portrayed in the film as a warlord-ridden land of strife and oppression…
The final assessment? High Road to China received mixed reviews from critics, while the author of the source novel, John Clearly, called the film “one of the greatest disappointments” of his career.
An even less serious film, the 1985 American comedy Spies Like Us, briefly features Afghanistan as the US government sends the two main characters, bumbling bureaucrats, into Pakistan as fake spies to throw the Soviets off the trail of the real spies. Having clearly enjoyed the American joke from High Road to China, and foreshadowing the inability of the United States to create long-term, faithful allies through the distribution of weapons, the filmmakers introduce the viewer to the local fighters:
Having tackled US-Mujahedin relations, the film then moves on to the problems of civil-military separation and the use of medical operations to carry out espionage (one of the tactics used by the CIA to find Osama bin Laden).
After a brief stint in Pakistan, the two spies decide to ‘go native’ and don local disguises in Afghanistan while on their way to cross the Soviet border, one of the many times a film-goer can see a foreigner dressed as an Afghan.
The African Tuareg-style turbans, the inappropriate shorts sleeves, and the strange pink burkha in the background of the above image may lead the reader to wonder about how Afghan clothing is depicted in this and other films. Spies Like Us was filmed in Morocco, and the costuming department took additional liberties with ‘traditional’ Afghan dress. The image of a bus full of ‘Afghans’ below shows men in Indian Gandhi/Nehru caps and the women wearing what appear to be poor imitations of Arab Bedouin wedding veils.
This film is not the only offender when it comes to unsatisfactory representations of Afghan clothing, as can be seen in several other films, the luxurious fur coats in The Man Who Would Be King (reviewed below) providing just one of many examples:
Films set mostly in Afghanistan, but still mostly about foreigners
Afghanistan is only a brief part of Spies Like Us, but another comedy, the 1975 British/American film The Man Who Would be King, dedicates more time to Afghanistan, specifically in one area: Kafiristan. The two fictional adventurers here (based on a Rudyard Kipling novella), spend much of the film’s running time in this region.
The role of Afghanistan is played by Morocco, the American state of Utah, and the French mountains around Chamonix, with some extra special effects to add some grandeur to the peaks of Afghanistan:
What can be said about this film? For one, it is, on the largest movie database on the internet, the highest rated film among those reviewed in this dispatch. The movie is one of both Sean Connery and Michael Caine’s most well-known and successful films. Furthermore, it has entered into popular culture as a memorable satirical attack on militarism, greed and colonial arrogance, as exemplified by this quote:
The plot is simple: two former British soldiers head to Afghanistan as mercenaries and attempt to get rich by seizing power in Kafiristan. This would not be the last time that former soldiers of a western army head to Afghanistan to collect large salaries. Kipling could not have imagined that sort of thing happening in the future. Rather, he was thinking of the early 19th century American adventurer/mercenary Josiah Harlan, who had hoped to make himself a ruler of a sort in Afghanistan. Harlan worked his way into the court of Amir Dost Muhammad Khan, led a 1938 raid on a northern Uzbek khan, and then eventually named himself the ‘Prince of Ghor.’ The British, having their own plans for Afghanistan, eventually expelled the would-be provincial ruler from the country.
If a viewer wants, they can find several parallels between this film and the post-2001 period in Afghanistan. For a start, the two Brits achieve a quick military victory and then install a local ruler in a bid for quick legitimacy (Kipling probably had the British client ruler Shah Shuja in mind). The local ruler, seen below as played by the Moroccan actor Doghmi Larbi (below, middle background), is eventually dispensed with by the British adventurers.
The two Brits are appalled by local customary law and become quite unhappy with the behaviour of their local allies (eg, the locals offer their children for sexual favours – a ‘tradition’ that is obviously not part of local culture in Afghanistan). Coincidentally, they soon find their puppet to be no longer needed. They install themselves as self-imagined benevolent rulers, but soon come into conflict with local religious leaders who demand a say in governance and taxation.
Eventually, the director is no longer attempting to portray Afghanistan accurately in any way whatsoever, with the costumes, customs and architecture venturing into absurdist territory. The movie moves further into the improbable until some sort of Buddhist Free Mason Greek temple enters the story-line:
But still, the possible comparisons to the post-2001 state-building efforts continue to present themselves. The point at which the two ignorant foreign occupiers decided to build unnecessary infrastructure that nobody asked for, accompanied by a large opening ceremony, may be the most authentic thing about this film as a parable for post-2001 Afghanistan:
This similarity is possibly matched by the presence of a Nepalese Gurkha who does most of the dangerous work and by the simple tribal strategy, as announced by Connery’s character: “The more tribes, the more they’ll fight, and the better for us.” Overall, the foreigners are portrayed as greedy, scheming and arrogant. Caine and Connery’s portrayal is near perfect in this regard.
The people of ‘Kafiristan’ are portrayed no better, being shown as cruel and promiscuous savages who play polo with the heads of their enemies – among just many of their vices. As for who was chosen to play the locals, Moroccan extras fill the screen for most of the scenes, with Michael Caine’s wife Shakira Baksh playing the role of Roxanne, the unwilling local bride of Connery’s character, who eventually drops his objections to local customs when they start to work in his favour.
As for the languages used, they are certainly not from among the Nuristani language family. Rather, it seems as if the actors are using their native languages, Arabic and Urdu. Very few western films on Afghanistan before 2001 attempt linguistic authenticity, as they do not, with just a couple of rare exceptions, use Afghans as actors for a variety of reasons (the lack of or inexperience of Afghan actors, for example). The supply of Iranian, Pakistani, Indian and Arab actors was enough to satisfy the casting directors in Hollywood.
Linguistic issues extend beyond just the casting of Afghan roles in films. In the 1987 James Bond film The Living Daylights, the role of Bond is played by Timothy Dalton, who has an exchange in Afghanistan with his co-star Maryam D’Abo that is supposed to be a ‘mansplaining‘ explanation of who the mujahedin are. But to those who know how to properly pronounce ‘mujahedin,’ it sounds like she is correcting Dalton’s pronunciation (note: all subtitle spellings for images that accompany The Living Daylights have been changed by the reviewer to reflect how the characters actually pronounce their words):
The writers do not give up on having James Bond say the word ‘mujahedin,’ resulting in several different pronunciations of the word – none of them quite correct. Bond later recovers his linguistic skills when it truly matters: to win over a woman using Pakhto.
As for the actor that actually plays an Afghan in this film, the Pakistani-American actor Art Malik, known to most as the psychotic leader of the ‘Crimson Jihad’ terrorist group in the 1994 Schwarzenegger film True Lies, is far more American than Pakistani, as shown by the pronunciation of his character’s name – Kamran Shah:
Kamran Shah, sprung by James Bond from a Soviet air base prison, is a heroic mujahedin leader who is fighting the evil Soviets. All seems okay until the suspicious Bond decides to check the ‘medical supplies’ that Shah is escorting:
The idea of an American ally involved in drug trafficking in Afghanistan is the most realistic part of the plot – which follows Bond as he tracks down a rogue KGB agent and a villainous American arms dealer who are attempting to send diamonds and weapons into Afghanistan in exchange for opium supplied by the wonderfully – but improbably – named Afghan drug cartel ‘The Snow Leopard Brotherhood’. That someone would use such subterfuge to traffic opium is less realistic. It is easy enough to move opium and heroin around Afghanistan without such a disguise – a disguise that earned the filmmakers the wrath of the International Committee for the Red Cross, who objected to the use of their symbol.
Afghans are depicted in a variety of ways in this film: as innocent victims of Soviet bombardment, as brave mujahedin fighters, and as unscrupulous drug dealers. The idea of showing good guys and bad guys on each side is extended to the Americans and the Soviets. Both villains and heroes are represented. Only the British are purely heroes in The Living Daylights, a possible antidote to their wretched portrayal in The Man Who Would be King.
The clothing on the ‘Afghans’ is somewhat better than the films reviewed above, as the film’s costuming department clearly had a budget for pakols and turbans, some of them thrown haphazardly on the heads of the extras.
The extras never really convincingly portray Afghans, understandable as they are drawn from the filming location: Morocco. This Hollywood-friendly country is a popular choice for the movie studios. But why not shoot your movie inside Afghanistan?
Films that are actually filmed in Afghanistan
Problems of authenticity can be avoided if a filmmaker actually chooses to make Afghanistan the filming location. For western films, this was not an option in the 1980s and 1990s. However, there was a film that was shot in Afghanistan right before the Soviet-Afghan War. This is the 1979 movie Meetings With Remarkable Men, based on the autobiography of the mystic and spiritual leader George Gurdjieff. Arriving in Paris in the 1920s, the Greek-Armenian Gurdjieff claimed to have travelled extensively in the East and discovered many spiritual secrets. Basing himself in France, he founded a spiritual movement that still has off-shoots operating worldwide. As for his time in Afghanistan, the veracity of Gurdjieff’s claims to have discovered a ‘Sarmoung Brotherhood’ Sufi monastery in northern Afghanistan that taught a style of dance-meditation is clearly not based in reality. Gurdjieff’s defenders, eventually recognising that no such Sufi order existed in Afghanistan, now represent this claim as an allegory.
Gurdjieff’s travels, fictional or not, provide great material for a travel movie. The result, shot on location in Afghanistan, provide a beautiful look at 1970s northern Afghanistan.
The main actors are mostly Yugoslav and British, with one Iranian playing an important character role. But the smallest parts and the extras are mostly people from northern Afghanistan. This is as authentic as you will get with a western film from the pre-2001 period (note: the 4th frame includes a young Yugoslav actor, Mikica Dimitrijevic):
The ‘costumes’ are equally as interesting, representing the broad diversity of cultures in northern Afghanistan (note: the man on the bottom right is portrayed by Iranian actor Sami Tahasuni).
As for the languages used, the foreigners speak in English, and local interlocutors speak it as well. Dari is also spoken, with some strange results as the film is shot in Afghanistan, but with some story segments being set in southern Russia. This leads to an incongruous scene when a pakol-wearing man, the British actor Bruce Myers playing a Russian character, haggles over prices in Dari with an obviously Afghan man in what is supposed to be a market in southern Russia.
And what of the film itself? It is not a conventional film, and some will find it boring or confusing, littered with metaphysical and spiritual jargon. But if a viewer is patient, they will likely enjoy the film, at least for the imagery and ‘feel’ of the movie.
Soon after production ended on this film, Afghanistan descended into war. And the fate of the main actor, Dragan Maksimovic (shown below on the bridge), provides a tragic end note to the larger story. In 2000 in Belgrade, skinhead football hooligans beat him to death on the street in a racist attack, mistaking the dark-skinned actor for a Roma Gypsy.
Despite everything Afghan about this film, it is not about Afghanistan or Afghans, it is about the spiritual quest of a troubled young man from the Russian Empire.
But isn’t there a western film from before 2001 that is actually about Afghans?
There is indeed a movie that appears to be yet another story about foreigners in Afghanistan, but that eventually incorporates more and more about Afghans as the story progresses. For many, it is the most well-known film about Afghanistan: Rambo III.
This movie, shot mostly on location in Israel, is very simple.
See Rambo play buzkashi:
See Rambo fight:
And, if you are unaware of the plot of this film, it is this: Afghans good; Soviets bad; Americans heroic. The story is about Rambo coming to Afghanistan to rescue his former commander from a Soviet prison, and deciding sometime along the way that he cares about the Afghans. The action is often boring and lacking in creativity – it very soon gets monotonous. Rambo III has not passed the test of time as has the highly rated and engaging first film in the Rambo series, First Blood.
Nevertheless, the film is a remarkable piece of independently-produced anti-Soviet propaganda:
What is most remarkable is that this film was not in the interest of American foreign policy-makers. Perhaps it would have been if it was released in 1980, but not by 1988 when it premiered. By 1988, the Soviets were well into their withdrawal from Afghanistan, and as the film’s star Sylvester Stallone noted, the moment had passed and the era of Soviet-US cooperation was in full swing:
…one month before the movie comes out, Russia comes over. It was Gorbachev giving Nancy Reagan a kiss on the cheek; everybody loves everybody and I’m the bad guy… I give up, that’s why I never do political movies.
Stallone also remarked on the oft noted claim that Rambo fought alongside the Taleban or al-Qaeda, despite the fact that neither of those organisations existed in the 1980s. Stallone, when asked about the storyline – in which Rambo fights alongside a local Afghan commander identified as ‘Massud’ – usually gives explanations similar to the one he gave recently:
I was not happy with Rambo 3…because who knew that the guys I go in and save have become Al Qaeda and the guy I was supposed to be talking to was Bin Laden; that was a bad move.
Stallone is grossly mistaken here. Not only does Osama bin Laden not feature in this film, but the Afghans he fights alongside are in the Panjshir Valley (translated as “The Valley of Five Lions” for this film) and are under the leadership of command of Commander Massud, played by Greek actor Spiros Focas:
Massoud’s forces were, as is well-known, strongly opposed to the Taleban and al-Qaeda. Rambo is safe from any charge of having supported the rise of the Taleban or al-Qaeda – even if Stallone doesn’t know it. However, there are some moments that may be awkward viewing for a post-2001 American audience. The following is chief among them, an exchange between an American Colonel and his captor, a Soviet Colonel, about foreign armies in Afghanistan:
Moving along, what can be said about the Afghans in this movie? The Afghan content is higher than in the films reviewed above, but the Afghans are still only sidekicks to the American and his story. It’s hinted that Rambo will return home and tell Americans about what is happening in Afghanistan. The final shot in the film is this sentiment, the filmmakers telling the world about Afghanistan:
Films with higher ‘Afghan’ content
There is another 1988 film about the Soviet-Afghan War, also filmed on location in Israel like Rambo III. This lesser-know film is The Beast of War, released briefly in only two cinemas – one in New York and one in Los Angeles. Like Rambo III, it also lacks in subtlety, at least at the very beginning – as demonstrated by the opening scene when Soviet forces attack a village. In an efficient manner, the Soviets kill the villagers who resist, poison the well, set the houses on fire, shoot the livestock, and destroy the mosque’s minaret:
If the anti-Soviet and anti-war imagery of the first few minutes of this American movie is not enough for the viewer, the next scene is a gruesome sequence where Soviet tankers place an Afghan under their tank treads and slowly run him over.
Where this film is different is in the development of the Afghan characters as the film switches back and forth between a Soviet tank crew and the villagers who try to hunt them down. After the initial destruction, the main Afghan character ‘Taj’, played by Cuban-American actor Steven Bauer, returns to his village to find his life destroyed.
Alongside his father, played by Indian actor Kabir Bedi (above, comforting his son), Taj reluctantly joins with a band of local mujahedin, but only after voicing his displeasure at their bad reputation. As the Afghans pursue the Soviets, the filmmakers take advantage of the scenery provided by the Israeli desert filming location:
If the viewer can imagine that the location for this fictional story might be in far southern or southeastern Afghanistan, then the desert scenes may be believable in terms of the similarities between the Afghan and Israeli desert.
Regarding the languages spoken in this film, the viewer must just accept that the Russian characters speak English with American accents. The Afghans in this film speak Pashto. However, none of the actors reading lines as Afghans in The Beast of War are from Afghanistan. Rather, the actors, assisted by a Pashto language coach, are from Cuba, India and Israel.
This film, while comparable to Rambo III, is far superior in exploring the nuances of Afghanistan, its culture and its history. For example, while Rambo III shows only a simple Soviet versus Afghans divide, The Beast of War has an Afghan communist soldier accompanying the Soviet tank crew as a liaison. Treated with extreme suspicion by the Soviet commander, the Afghan communist is played with empathy by the Indian-born actor Erick Avari:
The Afghan soldier tells the most sympathetic of the Soviets about Pashtun culture, which provides one of the overarching themes for this film. He starts with describing Pashtunwali (see the AAN paper on Pashtunwali here):
The Afghan describes its components simply: badal is revenge, melmastia is hospitality, and nanawatai is providing sanctuary – even to enemies. This obvious foreshadowing lets the viewer know that all of these concepts will be demonstrated as the film progresses. The village women, deprived by the Soviets of their homes, decide to start their own quest for revenge:
But all these concepts have their limits: in real life and in the film. The man who wrote the play on which the film is based, William Mastrosimone, actually visited Afghanistan in 1981 with the help of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Here Mastrosimone witnessed, on his first day in the country, the mujahedin executing eleven Soviet prisoners who were captured during an attack on a Soviet armoured column. One of the Afghans justified the execution with a quote from the Quran, with no mention of Pashtunwali. After this, the New Jersey writer Mastrosimone was alternately left for dead by his Afghan guides and then rescued by Afghan villagers after becoming sick in the mountains. Hospitality is flexible, and depends on the circumstances.
This ‘flexibility’ that Mastrosimone witnessed makes an appearance in the film, as the Afghans argue over whether or not to execute a Soviet soldier who is abandoned by his comrades. The soldier, remembering his Pashtunwali lessons, yells out “nanawatai!” – which is rejected by half of the Afghans present. Eventually, pragmatism wins out over badal: they need him to fix their weapons.
The Soviet soldier, now seeking his own ‘badal’ against his former comrades who abandoned him, joins with the Afghans in hunting down the tank crew. When the Afghans finally capture three Soviet soldiers, their Russian guest/prisoner, now fighting alongside them, begs the Afghans to spare the lives of the Soviets – but only because he wants the Soviet commander to witness ultimate defeat in Afghanistan. He again asks for nanawatai, but this time he asks as a guest of Taj, not as a prisoner. Finally, the fate of the Soviet tank commander is decided when he is confronted by those most motivated by revenge (note: this scene provides a spoiler for the fate of the film’s villain):
See scene here
The Soviets, aside from the one sympathetic character played by Jason Patric, are portrayed as cruel invaders. As one Soviet says to another “How is it we’re the Nazis this time?” There are portrayals of Soviets and Russians in Afghanistan that are more favourable. However, a viewer must track down such Soviet and Russian films as A Hot Summer in Kabul (1983), Afghan Breakdown (1990), Peshawar Waltz (1994), 9th Company (2005), or Kandahar (2010).
Even this film, with the Afghans occupying an equal part of the story alongside the Soviet tank crew, is still not entirely or even mostly about Afghans.
Films set in Afghanistan, but not at all about Afghans
The setting for a film may play only a small part. This is the case for many films that are a study of relationships and inner character development. A case in point here is the limited role that Afghanistan plays in the 2001 German-language film Die Reise nach Kafiristan (The Journey to Kafiristan), which is based on a true story. The plot, described in the briefest possible manner, follows two Swiss writers, both looking to get away from the atmosphere of rising fascism in Europe in the late 1930s while pursuing their own personal goals. One, Ella Maillart, had travelled extensively in isolated mountainous areas of Eurasia and had a dream to visit ‘Kafiristan,’ now known as the Afghan province of Nuristan. Tagging along, and hoping to shed her morphine addiction, is her travel partner Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a leftist writer and photographer, known for her prominent rich, right-wing family and her bisexuality, then an unthinkable lifestyle in Switzerland.
The beginning of the film, with Ella searching a British library for maps of Kafiristan, makes it appear as if a region of Afghanistan is to be prominently featured. Kafiristan is even described for the viewer who may not be familiar with this archaic name for Nuristan:
The two travel companions do not reach Afghanistan until one hour and twenty minutes into the film, and even then it moves quickly into the background, with Ella and Annemarie’s relationship and psychological state taking the focus. What is immediately notable about the depiction of Afghanistan are the scenes of nature and architecture. Unable, for obvious reasons, to shoot the film in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001, the filmmakers chose Uzbekistan and Jordan as stand-ins with beautiful, if not completely authentic, results:
Arriving at Bagram via northern Afghanistan, Ella meets the Luxembourger-French archaeologist Joseph Hackin, who gives her some devastating news: war has broken out in Europe and the neutral government of Afghanistan has banned independent travel by foreigners in Afghanistan. Hackin packs up his excavations at Bagram and heads to the French Legation in Kabul, and then onward the next year to organise Free French forces and, ultimately, to his death in Europe. Ella, her dreams of Kafiristan crushed, is then abandoned by Annemarie, who flees to Kabul in search of morphine. From there the film moves towards its denouement.
What is clear about this film is the role of Afghans – there is none whatsoever. Afghans are almost completely invisible, only shown walking by in the distance. If anybody is looking for a movie about Afghanistan, this is not it. Afghanistan is used a plot device of a far-off and unknown destination. The movie is about the relationship between Ella and Annemarie, and the filmmakers do not pretend to be making a film on Afghanistan. In fact, the idea of a journey Kafiristan as a metaphor for finding peace of mind is clearly hinted at throughout the movie.
For those viewers that know Afghanistan, some parts of this film may be distracting. A non-existent name (‘Eufemia’) is used for an Afghan city where Ella and Annemarie spend some time, and the end of the film features a train that is leaving to India. Unfortunately, you still can not leave or arrive to Afghanistan by train, unless you are hauling cargo between Uzbekistan and Mazar-i Sharif.
Overall, Journey to Kafiristan is a good, though somewhat slow, film. But it is not a film about Afghanistan, and it is certainly not a film about Afghans.
A film entirely about Afghans
However, there is one western film from the pre-2001 era that is entirely about Afghans, takes place in Afghanistan, and is shot in Afghanistan. This is the epic 1971 film The Horsemen (Spanish poster shown).
The Horsemen merits its own entire review. It is alternately amazing and preposterous. This film, about a disgraced buzkashi champion, is truly from another era, as exemplified by the promotional tagline: “He used the whip on a man, a woman and a horse. Only the horse forgave him.” The story line follows the defeated, humiliated and crippled horseman Tursen (played by Omar Sharif, below on the right) as he attempts to regain his honour.
The film, shot mostly on location in Afghanistan (with additional shooting in a studio and in Spain), provides beautiful views of the diverse Afghan countryside:
Copies of The Horsemen are very easy to find, and it should be watched before reading a review. The film has its faults, quite a few in fact. But it also has many positive aspects. It is required viewing for anyone who wants to see a representation of Afghans and Afghanistan in western film – for better or for worse.
A full review of The Horsemen is forthcoming in the near future from AAN.
The viewing experience – from a western perspective
The films reviewed above can be viewed and responded to in many different ways. For example, should one just ignore the cultural and geographical inaccuracies? Or do these ruin the experience? It depends on who is watching. Most western viewers just accept that the Morocco or Uzbekistan filming locations, for example, are Afghanistan, but a few non-Afghans will constantly notice discrepancies that may distract from the viewing experience. The same can be said for language and costuming. For example, the clothing worn by the Pashtun tribesman (on the right) attempting to stab a very young John Wayne in The Black Watch (1929) are, obviously, far from accurate. Partial blame for this is actually on John Wayne himself, who would have played a role in selecting the costumes. As a 21 year old he was not yet a famous actor, but rather a member of the costuming department on this film. An extra was needed onscreen and the young unknown actor filled the role. But this film was released in 1929. Since then, many movie viewers have grown increasingly critical of films that lack authenticity.
Overall, if a viewer gets hung up on these problems, then there is not a single film from the pre-2001 era that will satisfy them. One person may find much to enjoy, while another may, as reviews and comments online show, get quite angry. An Afghan or even a non-Afghan might be offended by the depictions of Afghan culture in High Road to China, and a non-Afghan might decide that The Man Who Would be King is not enjoyable as anti-colonial satire, but is rather an ‘orientalist’ attack on the people of Afghanistan. Views on foreign policy also clearly play a role, and many angry online comments that attack Ronald Reagan and American foreign policy can be found in response to Rambo III and The Beast of War (image below).
But have any of these films reviewed above helped to form an image of Afghanistan for western audiences? For some, films such as Rambo III may have been the only representation of Afghanistan that they were exposed to. At the other end of the spectrum, another viewer may have actually spent time in Afghanistan and know quite a bit about that country and its culture, and a film such as Rambo III would be quickly discarded as a potential influence on how they view Afghanistan. Certainly, it must be noted that, with the exception of The Journey to Kafiristan and Meetings with Remarkable Men, Afghanistan is represented as a wild and dangerous place. However, it is far more likely that the media coverage of over three decades of war in Afghanistan have done far more to form an image of Afghanistan in the west.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020