Since 2001, there has been a relatively large number of western films that feature Afghanistan – either briefly or, in some cases, for the entire length of the movie. But despite the significant numbers of American and European mainstream films that deal with Afghanistan, there are few that truly explore the country and its people. In this dispatch (the second of three in a series, see the first part on Afghanistan movies from 1909 to 2001 here), AAN guest analyst Christian Bleuer reviews – from a western perspective – a number of films from the post-2001 period that take place in Afghanistan, finding a few bright spots and, unfortunately, many disappointments.
An Afghan warlord samples Walter Mitty’s mother’s clementine cake, from the 2011 comedy The Secret life of Walter Mitty:
Note: In order to narrow down the dozens of films that could be included in this review, ‘western films’ are defined here as movies that are almost entirely western productions. This excludes the increasingly common Afghan co-productions that are targeted at western film festivals, such as Osama, Opium War, or The Patience Stone, in which a foreign company is heavily involved (production, funding, writing, and/or technical assistance, etc.).
This review will, due to the large number of films, not offer a comprehensive review of any single work. Furthermore, little writing will be dedicated to discussing ‘authenticity,’ as in the previous review of pre-2001 films. In most of the films mentioned in this review there are faults such as foreign soldiers wearing the wrong uniforms, Afghans speaking non-Afghan languages and the California desert standing in for Afghanistan, among many other problems. If the viewer cannot accept faults like these, then they will be made truly miserable by the large majority of western films that feature Afghanistan.
A good question to ask when starting a survey of films that feature Afghanistan is “Why Afghanistan?” And the answer for the largest category of films reviewed in this article is that Afghanistan is not the main or even secondary inspiration behind the film. Rather it is merely used as a convenient tool to use in building a storyline – Afghanistan and Afghans are not the focus in any way whatsoever.
Afghanistan as a briefly used plot device
There are many films that open with a few scenes in Afghanistan and then quickly move to other locations where the rest of the movie will play out. Most often these are international thrillers that deal with terrorism or devious plots by rogue elements in the power structures at home. Afghanistan as a briefly used plot device is understandable: the filmmakers need to establish their thriller as being connected to high-stakes international intrigue, and they need their audience to be given something they can understand. As a plot device, Afghanistan is interchangeable with many other locations (any dangerous war zone, failing state or terrorism-riddled country would suffice). It is convenient. It provides war, terrorism and the involvement of spies and militaries from various western countries. Having the screen flash the words “Location, Afghanistan” before a scene establishes the high stakes.
The opening scene from Iron Man (2008).
The 2008 superhero movie Iron Man is by far the most financially successful film to (briefly) feature Afghanistan, with over half a billion dollars in revenue worldwide. However, unlike several of the films reviewed below, in the case of Iron Man, the protagonist will spend some significant time in Afghanistan. The basic premise: the arrogant industrialist and arms dealer Tony Stark is visiting Afghanistan to demonstrate his weapons to the US military, and things will not go well for him. He is ambushed, kidnapped and held hostage by terrorists who want him to build weapons for them. This marks the beginning of his transformation into the superhero known as Iron Man.
Tony Stark has his morning glass of whiskey in Kunar.
What is most interesting here is that, in the original comic book storyline, terrorists and Afghanistan were not the convenient plot device. Instead, the story took place with communist captors in Vietnam. Communists and Vietnam have been confined to distant historical memory in the American popular imagination, but the ‘War on Terror’ can easily takes its place. But even so, Afghanistan does not last long, only being used at the beginning and in the middle. Iron Man’s true enemies are rival arms dealers back home in California.
Films from the genre that include brief mentions of Afghanistan include Hummingbird, a 2013 action movie starring Jason Statham as a British soldier who ran away from his special forces unit in Afghanistan and who, for the entire length of the film, beats up people who need to be beat up (the plot-line of every single Jason Statham movie). An American example is Source Code, a 2011 sci-fi thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a man whose last memory is being shot down while flying his US Army helicopter in Afghanistan. The movie itself has nothing to do with Afghanistan beyond this. In this type of film, Afghanistan is usually discarded after a brief mention or a few seconds to a few minutes on screen. A similar film is Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), which references the protagonist’s experience in the Afghan War, but merely to establish his character as an idealist.
An excellent example of Afghanistan being used as a convenient plot tool in this manner, albeit with some actual screen time, is the 2015 film Survivor. The film opens with two US army helicopter pilots assisting ground forces in a fire-fight somewhere in Kandahar province. They are quickly shot down and taken prisoner, with two entirely different fates. The Afghan commander determines that one of the pilots is of no use, so he drenches him in fuel and sets him on fire.
The co-pilot suffers a different fate: the insurgents figure out that his father is the head consular officer at the US embassy in London. The Afghans then hold the pilot prisoner while the information is sold to international terrorists who have designed a plot to attack New York. All they need are passports, and the American pilot will be used as a tool against his father. From here, the film moves to London and New York. The movie is entirely forgettable, and the use of Afghanistan is forgotten well before the film reaches its climax.
Moving away from mainstream action movies to a film that is more so targeted at critics and film festivals is the 2013 Irish-Swedish-Norwegian film A Thousand Times Good Night, starring French actress Juliette Binoche and Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. At its core, this film is a family drama, with Binoche portraying a photographer obsessed with war zones and refugee camps. At home in Ireland – taking care of the family – is her marine biologist husband, who is increasingly unhappy with his wife’s absence. The two children must regularly deal with the fact that their mother may die horribly at any moment, and their mental health is suffering as a result.
The film opens in Afghanistan and – surprise! – it includes actual scenes of Afghanistan (after a brief drive through a Moroccan film location).
Binoche’s character, an acclaimed photojournalist, is doing a story on female suicide bombers in Afghanistan (still a rarity in real life) and is very close to her subjects. It all goes terribly wrong and she is caught nearby when a suicide bomber panics and detonates before reaching her intended target. The photographer is badly injured and medevac’d to Dubai, but not before taking a few last photos as she drifts in and out of consciousness.
It ends far worse for the large numbers of civilians who die in the streets of Kabul, and this is shown graphically. But, still this is a film about a family in Ireland, not about Afghans. Returning home, the photographer then finds her life falling apart, with her husband wanting her to either quit her job or leave their home forever. In the meantime, her agent cannot sell the photos, and eventually asks her to return to Afghanistan once again to expand on the story she was working on.
Like the films above, this movie also uses Afghanistan as a setting that is completely interchangeable with other locations. The plot could have used a photographer who wants to return to any number of war zones and humanitarian crises around the world over the last decade. However, this film exhibits a trait common to many films that include Afghanistan in the story: trauma. Everyone in this film is traumatized, from the locals being maimed and killed, to the foreigners documenting it – and even their families back home. Afghanistan in film is, in many cases, a ‘trauma’ to be overcome.
Afghanistan as a past trauma to be overcome
Characters overcoming grief and trauma is a very common storyline in films. It could be the loss of a family member, a violent assault, experience in a war zone, or any other unpleasant trial of life. And with the war in Afghanistan being in the western news occasionally, it is unsurprising that film writers choose a war zone as a source of trauma. Most prominent among these are ‘coming home’ films that follow members of the military returning to their home country.
The 2004 Danish films Brothers was quick to use Afghanistan as a war to come home from. By 2009, this was adapted into an American version of the same title. The plot is the same: a soldier is held prisoner in Afghanistan while his family presumes he is dead. Then surprisingly, he is discovered by chance during a raid on the Taleban. During his captivity, he had been tortured physically and psychologically. He then returns home to find, from his paranoid perspective, that his brother has slowly taken over his role as father to his children and husband to his wife.
Brothers is moderately competent as a film, but is not particularly remarkable in any way, aside from being one of the worst offenders in terms of its lack of authenticity in its portrayal of both Afghans and the US military. Like Afghanistan, the military background of the missing father is used out of convenience. He could be a businessman who was kidnapped and held by leftist guerrillas in Colombia. It really does not matter; a bad past experience must be overcome in the present. Afghanistan seems, again, interchangeable here.
Another recent military returnee from Afghanistan features prominently in the 2015 film Max. In this movie, the father returned from Gulf War I, but his son did not return from Afghanistan. Instead, in his place, is his military working dog Max, a Belgian Shepherd. Max is a good boy, and this is an unambiguously pro-dog film. As the film opens, Max sniffs around a village until he detects a hidden cache of weapons, much to the displeasure of the Afghan locals who have a dog (perceived as unclean) running in and out of their houses:
Soon after, Max loses his handler to an insurgent attack. Following the death of his best friend, the military determines that he has PTSD and is no longer fit for doggy duty. He is offered for adoption to the family who lost their son, and the story begins back home in the lawless mountainous border regions of east Texas.
Max, due to his PTSD, has problems with aggression and obedience, and the father – a stern former Marine – wants him gone. There’s not much to say about the film, which then moves on to a contrived plot featuring an antagonist who was kicked out of the military for trying to smuggle weapons out of Afghanistan. By the end, things are settled with the assistance of the heroic and victorious dog Max, who uses a culturally appropriate level of violence as one should expect from an American family-friendly adventure movie with a PG rating.
Worth remarking here is that, while watching all the movies covered in this review, there was a noticeable presence of dogs throughout. The Afghan rascals in The Kite Runner use their slingshot to shoot a poor sleeping Kabuli German Shepherd with a walnut, an escaped Taleban prisoner stabs to death a German Shepherd in the Polish film Essential Killing, and a local fixer for the Canadian journalists in Afghan Luke steals a bomb-sniffing beagle from the American military, claiming that his new pet is in fact a “Waziristani Beagle.”
Military working dogs are glimpsed throughout other films, such in Zero Dark Thirty, where ‘Cairo’ the Belgian Shepherd of SEAL Team 6 fame is thoughtlessly cast as a German Shepherd in the scenes featuring the raid on bin Laden’s compound. Max just takes the tendency of foreigners to love dogs to its logical limit and monetizes this phenomenon in the form of a movie that fully focuses on the dog (a not entirely uncommon protagonist in western film).
Screenshot from 9th Company: Soviet soldiers at Bagram with their German Shepherds, known in the Soviet Union as “East European Shepherds.”
Moving away from the gentle content of children’s movies such as Max is a far more adult movie: the 2014 film Fort Bliss. This movie is more realistic in its depiction of the US military than the two films reviewed above. It is a straightforward drama about Maggie, a mother who returns from her deployment to Afghanistan as a medic, having lost two team members. The film uses Afghanistan (Helmand province) as an introduction, and then Maggie has flashbacks to her time there throughout the film as she attempts, while back on duty in Texas, to get her four-year-old son to recognize her as his mother.
The filmmakers were given access to Fort Bliss in Texas, including to their facilities and equipment, as well as to the use of US service members as extras. Usually, the films that are given assistance by the Department of Defense (see the list of US military liaisons in Hollywood here) are considered by many as thinly disguised recruiting films, from Top Gun to the Transformers franchise. If the Department of Defense approves the script for your film, you get access, expert advice, use of expensive military equipment and other benefits (see here). As a successful example of securing the use of military equipment, the US 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment provided helicopters for the 2001 Ridley Scott movie Blackhawk Down. Films that portray the US military as thieves, psychopaths, and/or cruel will likely be turned down in their request to receive US military assistance.
Fort Bliss is, however, not a ‘recruiting’ film that provides a glowing view of the US military. The main character, Maggie, is portrayed in a mostly positive light, but she is certainly given her faults. Other military characters are portrayed far worse. One is a dangerous and mentally ill man who bullies everyone around him, Maggie’s commanding officer is shown exhibiting poor leadership skills, and one of her team members, a fellow sergeant, tries to rape her while in Afghanistan. Despite the US military presumably having read the film script, they gave the filmmakers access to the US Army 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss and provided extensive cooperation. Clearly, the US Department of Defense is becoming more flexible in what sort of films it will cooperate with.
After returning from Afghanistan, Maggie joins another unit to train their medics in preparation for their deployment later that year. Unfortunately for her, the new unit’s deployment is hastened and she might find herself back in Afghanistan after only a few months at home with a son who almost doesn’t recognize her, preferring instead his new step-mom. As Maggie’s ex-husband says, “You’ve been gone a third of his life, what do you expect?” For the remainder of the film she attempts to repair the bond with her son while trying to reconcile her responsibility and duty to her new unit. Afghanistan is a specter hanging over Maggie. Seeking advice from her Vietnam veteran father, Maggie doesn’t get any answers. From here the film goes off in search of some sort of climax.
Afghanistan as a trauma is put on film most comprehensively in the 2014 German film Zwischen Welten (“Inbetween Worlds”). The storyline of this movie follows a German officer on his second tour of Kunduz while stuck with some arbaki militia allies. The other half of the story focuses on his interpreter Tarik, who lives with his sister and who has had their requests for German visas denied, as he did not have sufficient proof of the threats they face in retaliation for his work with a foreign military.
The ‘comprehensive’ nature of the trauma is how it is structured: the suffering is unlimited and occupies the past, present and future. Tarik’s father was executed in front of his eyes for being “on the wrong side,” while the German soldier lost his brother a few years before when he was also serving in the army in Afghanistan. The suffering in the present occupies much of the action on screen: threats of death, near-death, death, assault and rape (alluded to but not shown), while the promise of suffering in the future seems guaranteed. The sense of dread and futility throughout the film never lets up. Inbetween Worlds is an absolutely miserable film that will ruin your day. And the fact that so much in this movie can be related to personally by many Afghans goes a long way to explaining why Afghans prefer happy Bollywood films to the realism chosen by the Austrian director.
Aside from the thematic familiarity, there are also events in the film that are not just believable, but that have been caught on film in real life: the speeding car that will not stop until it is almost on top of the foreign soldiers ordering the driver to stop, the rough treatment and humiliation of said driver, and, in an incident directly lifted from the 2010 documentary Restrepo, the killing of a cow caught in the razor wire outside the foreign military base – followed by the demand for, and the denial of, monetary compensation for the local owners. Other events throughout are clearly based on the filmmaker’s research (a surprisingly easy thing that most neglect): the restrictions on night time missions faced by German soldiers, the threats over the phone against interpreters, the rather ‘independent’ nature of the arbaki fighters, etc.
What is good and enjoyable about this movie are other things that make it ‘real’: the film was shot in Afghanistan, the German army allowed them to use their equipment and base, the actors are locals, all the actors are quite good, and other such factors that give this film a believable quality that almost all the others lack.
Suffering in, and related to, Afghanistan obviously exists beyond the foreign militaries and their local interlocutors. There is another film that also deals with trauma and suffering in the past and present, but it holds out hope for the future. As is stated in the film, the optimism for the future is traced to a strong American influence (on the main character, the source material, and on the production of the film). This film is based on the best-known work of fiction in the West to feature Afghanistan since Caravans. It is, of course, The Kite Runner.
For those few people who do not know the plot of this well-known work, Amir, an Afghan-American, is seeking redemption for a childhood betrayal in pre-war Kabul. The subject matter is a difficult one: rape. The theme of sexual violation makes numerous appearances in the films on Afghanistan, from The Horsemen, Essential Killing, Good Kill, Ft. Bliss, Inbetween Worlds, Charlie Wilson’s War, and other films. But in The Kite Runner rape is at the core of the story. Switching between 1988, back to 1978-79, and then forward to 2000, the viewer is slowly given an idea of the scale of the betrayal and the debt that Amir owes to Hassan, his childhood friend and family servant. Amir lost his mother as he was born, he is now losing his father to illness and his homeland is in a state of destruction. But the hope here arrives in the form of a woman in his life, whom he quickly marries, and then in message form, from his father’s best friend, who has recently fled Kabul for Peshawar. The message offers Amir the chance for his redemption, but he will have to go to Afghanistan to find it.
The Kite Runner’s focus on past and present loss, suffering and grief is rather standard in film and other works of fiction. But many movies choose to exist in the present, and in the present only.
Afghanistan as a futile struggle in the present
Afghanistan in film, of course, is not always a trauma confined to the past. In other cases the struggle is in the present. These movies are almost always of the thriller or action genre – films that avoid lengthy character building and long story narrative and background. A good example of this is The Patrol, a 2013 British military film that takes place over a short period of time in Helmand.
The Patrol eschews big action scenes for the often-mundane realism of war. The soldiers are part of a regular army unit tasked with assisting local ANA soldiers while conducting as many patrols as possible to give the impression of a visible British military presence to allies and foes alike. Very little happens, and there is almost never any signs of the enemy, just men on motorbikes lingering in the distance (Taleban spy, or curious local?) and men moving around in the dark (locals working at night to avoid the summer heat, or Taleban readying an attack?). Most of the real action is conducted in the distance by the SAS or high above by American air support. When there is action, is it shooting at a distant and unseen enemy, or an IED attack.
The British soldiers are short on ammunition and food and are plagued with poorly working equipment. Overall there is extremely low moral, some bad personalities and a generally toxic situation festering – voiced loudly by the soldiers, almost all of who could use subtitles to translate their mostly incomprehensible squaddie English. From here the film moves towards an anti-climax. But what is important is the message that filmmakers are clearly representing: this is a pointless war of futility.
A 2007 American film directed by Robert Redford (starring himself, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep) elevates the futility from the bottom level in the field right up to the highest echelons of American power. This movie, Lions for Lambs, does not forget about those at the bottom, and so switches between two young US Army soldiers and the office of an upcoming US Senator, who has big plans for Afghanistan. The Senator is portrayed as an aggressive hawk by Tom Cruise, while the young soldiers, recent college graduates, are cast as young black and Latino men who see service to their country as a necessity if they are to advance in society and change America.
Overall, the filmmakers made little effort to research Afghanistan and the situation there. The plot involves a bizarre new Afghanistan strategy that seems entirely based on capturing mountaintops throughout the country. So, the two young soldiers above are deployed on a soon-to-fail mission to capture some high peaks in Badakhshan. As the battlefield action plays out, the enemy are glimpsed only as distant shadows, and Afghans do not make an appearance on screen, Meanwhile back home, a ‘dove’ journalist played by Meryl Streep aggressively questions the ‘hawk ’ Senator in his Washington office. Robert Redford, fairly described as an ‘anti-war’ liberal, does not use a screenwriting tactic that others with similar beliefs use: he actually gives the ‘pro-war’ side good lines and sympathetic characteristics. The Senator played by Tom Cruise and the two young soldiers clearly argue their beliefs in a way that will appeal to a certain viewer. Despite this, the film sees everything in a cynical manner, and it is not a very subtle film. Redford’s film attacks the weather-vane flexibility of journalists, the dirtiness of politics and the apathy of the average American.
But in the end, it is Robert Redford’s film. The story makes it unambiguously clear: the war in Afghanistan and the ‘War on Terror’ are futile. The film ends with a TV screen showing breaking news about a celebrity couple break-up; news of a major new Afghanistan initiative scrolls by at the bottom of screen, with the viewer knowing that it has already failed.
A more recent film, 2014’s Good Kill, also explores the theme of futility in Afghanistan and in the ‘War on Terror.’ It follows a former fighter jet pilot, now confined to an air-conditioned trailer on an air base near Las Vegas from where he flies drones over Afghanistan. Good Kill is written, directed and produced by New Zealand director Andrew Niccol, whose films explore America as a dystopia. His films, whether set in the future or the present, see America as sick and broken. Good Kill is no exception. Popular sentiments on drone warfare are spoken directly by the sympathetically portrayed anti-drone faction of the drone operators: “When did we become Hamas?” “What about their right to bear arms?” “I feel like a coward.” “We are a regular f***ing terrorist factory!” The two drone operators who are enthusiastic about their work are played as gruff, macho super patriots who bark and holler their cringeworthy lines. Eventually they make a female drone operator cry a single tear as she declares that poor people on the other side of the globe are no threat to America.
Screenshot from Good Kill: American drone operators get ready to drone-strike a funeral.
In Good Kill, Afghanistan and Afghans are only ever seen from the drone operator’s perspective (which is actually done quite well). And, like the two films above, all efforts there are futile. The overall commander of the drone operators, citing the Soviets, says it aloud: “No one wins a war in Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan as a true (military) story
As for the Soviets, they too make an appearance in one post-2001 movie, the 2005 Russian military action film 9th Company, which was a huge hit in Russia. Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, the film is no War and Peace (the 1966 film directed by his father Sergey Bondarchuk). Of course, Fedor did not have the 700 million dollars budget that his father did, but he does well with the Uzbekistan and Crimean filming locations and the generous free use of Russian military equipment. The film follows a very conventional military movie timeline: from conscription to boot camp to deployment to a war zone (in this case Afghanistan). The script is based on the real life experience of the Soviet soldiers who survived the Battle for Hill 3234 in Paktia province. During the two-day fight, 40 Soviet soldiers successfully defended a strategic hill protecting a military supply route against 10 waves of attacks by over 200 mujahedin (here and PDF here).
Screenshot from 9th Company: conscripts being drilled at boot camp.
In the heavily fictionalized film version, the conscripts are deployed to Afghanistan in late 1987, with the plane they land on at Bagram being shot down as it leaves with departing Soviet soldiers. From here, the already shell-shocked soldiers are deployed to eastern Afghanistan in support of Operation Magistral, the goal of which was to secure the road between Gardez and Khost. The film itself is ‘based on a true story,’ but takes considerable liberties with the (Soviet) facts for purposes of character building and drama.
Like the films above, this movie is about futility, which is obvious, as Soviet troops withdrew soon after the events of this movie took place. While there is plenty of revisionist history happening in Russia at the moment, the director Bondarchuk chose in 9th Company (released a decade ago) to not sanitize the Soviet Afghan War. The conscripts are portrayed as being overwhelmingly from rural areas and secondary industrial cities, many in the Red Army are shown as being cynical about their mission, the Afghan communist allies are described as untrustworthy allies who will flee and leave the Soviets on their own, inter-ethnic conflicts are rife between the Soviet soldiers, alcohol and marijuana are everywhere, Red Army soldiers loot other Soviet convoys for food, and the response to single Soviet soldier being shot dead in a village is to destroy the entire settlement with artillery and air strikes. Towards the end, one soldier asks another what he will do when the war is over. His answer is that he will drink, and continue to drink, and then drink some more until he forgets about the war.
One of the final scenes from 9th Company: The withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In 9th Company nearly every Soviet soldier in the company dies while trying to defend Hill 3234 in Paktia, when in real life only six men died there (versus hundreds of deaths on the mujahedin side) in what is now considered a successful Soviet defensive battle. Of course, like the Americans in Vietnam, the Soviets won almost every single battle in Afghanistan up until the time they withdrew.
An American military action film on a similar small-scale battle sticks closer to the facts of the story it is based on, (Operation Red Wings, here) but spoils the ending with its own name: Lone Survivor. Director Peter Berg, who appeared as an actor playing a Lt. Colonel in Lions for Lambs, works much harder to achieve realism and military accuracy. And, since his portrayal of the US military is also flattering, he had a not insignificant amount of US military equipment put at his disposal for the film (though the helicopters in the image below are computer generated), as well as extensive advice from Navy SEALs. It is likely that this film has a very different group of fans than a film like Good Kill.
Screenshot from Lone Survivor: New Mexico stands in for Kunar province.
The plot of Lone Survivor is very simple: Navy SEALs are out on a mission to catch a bad guy; things go poorly and there is lots of shooting. In this sense it is a very generic military action movie. Despite being based on such dramatic true events, very little is memorable in this action film. This is not the fault of the subject matter: foreign forces at war in Afghanistan are shown in unforgettable ways, as aptly demonstrated by the documentary films Restrepo and Armadillo.
There is really very little else to remark about this film – aside from its promotion of Pashtunwali (right before the end credits) and glowing representation of the villagers who saved the Navy SEAL and sheltered him from the insurgents. Of course, in real life the situation is not so tidy, as the man who saved the SEAL, Mohammad Gulab, is still waiting on his asylum case to be decided in the United States (see here).
Screenshot from Lone Survivor: Mohammad Gulab, played by Israeli Arab actor Ali Suliman.
Afghanistan as intrigue elsewhere
If 9th Company and Lone Survivor provide the ground view of foreign forces, then the polar opposites would be those films about Afghanistan that mostly show the intrigue and power-brokering taking place at the highest level. Certainly, Zero Dark Thirty does this, with many scenes taking place at CIA headquarters and at the American embassy in Pakistan. However, very little actually takes place inside Afghanistan, as the movie is about the hunt for bin Laden, who after 2001 was being looked for in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. The only appearances made by Afghanistan are American military bases (near Khost and Jalalabad). (Read an earlier, full AAN review of this movie here.)
Screenshot from Zero Dark Thirty: a CIA officer behind the wire in Nangrahar.
Another American film chooses Washington and Pakistan as the locations for most of the plot to unfold, understandable since the main character is a US Congressman: Charlie Wilson. The 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War is based, like Zero Dark Thirty, on a true story. But as Congressman Wilson was always more forthcoming than the CIA or SEAL Team 6, it does not have to make up as many events as does Zero Dark Thirty. While the movie does make it appear that Charlie Wilson’s efforts to promote financial and military aid to the Afghan mujahedin were all-important (in fact many more were involved in this process), there is nothing blatantly false about the film, aside from a few of the usual embellishments about alleged Soviet plans for reaching the Persian Gulf, among other creative exaggerations.
Charlie Wilson’s War is first and foremost about the back rooms of the American political system. Afghans make only brief appearances as wretched refugees, brave mujahedin fighters or civilians being mowed down by Soviet helicopters. There is not a single Afghan character. Everybody deciding the fate of Afghanistan in this film is Pakistani or American.
One thing notable about Charlie Wilson’s War is that it is a comedy, albeit of the dramatic variety. A cocaine-using and hard-drinking womanizing old school Texan politician supported by Evangelical Christians who wants to fight communists and save Afghans is obviously a rich subject for comedy. Certainly Charlie Wilson himself is funny, but can Afghanistan be funny? In particular, can the war in Afghanistan be funny?
Afghanistan as comedy
Very few have mined the war in Afghanistan for its comedic potential. It does make some brief appearances, eg, Salmon Fishing in The Yemen (2011), featuring a a plot where a British woman’s soldier boyfriend as presumed dead in Afghanistan – opening the way for a Scottish man to steal her away.
The 2013 American comedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is notable for giving Afghanistan slightly more attention in the comedy category. The film takes place mostly in New York, Greenland and Iceland, as a meek photo editor for LIFE Magazine tries to track down the elusive photographer whose negative he lost – a negative of a photograph that is intended to be the cover photo for LIFE Magazine’s final issue. It is well into the film when the viewer finds out that Afghanistan will be the final destination, taking the form of a photo-shoot itinerary written on a cake wrapper, including the words “buzkashi” and “warlords.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a very gentle comedy, and its treatment of Afghanistan is similarly so: a warlord who stands in Walter’s way is easily won over with a sample of his mother’s clementine cake. Eventually, after some rigorous trekking and mountaineering, Walter find his missing photographer, busy shooting a local (a snow leopard, with a camera).
Like some of the films reviewed above, Afghanistan is used interchangeably here. Walter Mitty could be off searching in any exotic locale. But for the 2011 Canadian comedy Afghan Luke, Afghanistan is indispensable. This movies takes its real-life inspiration from the Canadian military authorities’ allegations against one of its snipers, including that he mutilated the corpse of an al-Qaeda fighter, in particular taking one of his fingers as a trophy (background here).
Luke Benning, a young and aggressive Canadian journalist, sees this as a great opportunity for a story, not that he really cares. He dislikes soldiers, Afghans, other journalists and pretty much anybody else in their vicinity. Speaking to the viewer, he says “Nobody gives a f*** about Afghanistan. Most of the time not even I do, and I’ve been here eight times with three different newspapers.”
Confined to a burqa (see above) for part of his journey, the very unhappy Canadian endures taunts from his fixer Matin, who is greatly amused at his client’s choice of clothing. Remarking on the role of the fixer in Afghanistan, Luke comments “Why do they call them fixers? Fix what, exactly? Part translator, part tour guide, part confidant, full-time necessity. These guys are supposed to keep you alive, and my guy is stoned out of his mind. What’s he gonna fix?” The rest of the film follows the journalist and his fixer as they bumble across Afghanistan overcoming such obstacles as rude Latvians, fake Taleban, Afghan rap music producers, belligerent Canadian soldiers, the “Minister of Hash,” a racy nightclub named after Ghengis Khan, dirty journalists and an extremely angry warlord whose email to the Canadian journalist bounced back (“You give me fake email address!”)
Screen shot from Afghan Luke: RPG fishermen, slightly stoned and out to catch a few fish.
The Canadian director of Afghan Luke is loved/hated in Canada for his very polarizing TV series Trailer Park Boys, which is medium-to-low brow humor that is not grounded at all in realism. Similarly, he does not try for realism in Afghan Luke. Almost nothing about Afghanistan is correct in this film, but it really does not matter for what the filmmakers are trying to achieve with their absurdist, low-budget comedy that was filmed within walking distance of the Trans-Canada Highway.
But what if a filmmakers had a huge budget (60 million dollars) and ready source material (a best-selling book)? It depends on how prepared viewers are for a satirical comedy about General Stanley McChrystal’s misadventures in Afghanistan. We will only know the result next year when Brad Pitt plays the disgraced general in the David Michôd-directed film War Machine. Elsewhere, Bill Murray will attempt an Afghan road trip later this year in the upcoming comedy Rock the Kasbah (view the trailer here).
The storyline towards the end of Afghan Luke is simple: escape Afghanistan. Escaping from jails and from dangerous countries is a common plot device in films, Argo being the most recent notable example with American diplomats escaping the Iranian Revolution. Escaping from Afghanistan is clearly now also an option, as demonstrated in the final act of The Kite Runner.
Escape from Afghanistan
Not only Afghan-Americans (The Kite Runner) and Canadian journalists (Afghan Luke) have attempted escapes from Afghanistan, or from locales or dire situations within that country. The most obvious popular example is the 2011 French action film Forces spéciales, which is essentially one long escape sequence.
Screenshot from Forces spéciales: A Frenchman runs for his life.
The story is very basic, as is expected in this genre: a French journalist is kidnapped, rugged French special forces soldiers will come looking for her, but things do not go as planned and they are forced to travel cross-country through dangerous territory with angry men in pursuit.
Forces spéciales is what you would expect from an action adventure film with a ‘damsel in distress’ and a diverse team assembled to save her. Nothing is particularly original, aside from the spectacular filming locations offered by Tajikistan.
Screenshot from Forces spéciales: the actors are standing in Tajikistan, but – in real life – pointing across the river into Afghanistan.
The filmmakers behind the 2014 British military thriller Kajaki chose instead a stationary and warm location for their protagonists to escape from: a minefield near Kajaki Dam in Helmand. A ‘true military story’ like those reviewed above, the film is somewhat constrained by the facts. In this case, the facts are that British soldiers were stuck in a minefield, having taken several casualties and fearing that their next step would equal death. There is really nothing else to the story: they must escape from the minefield while treating their injured comrades at the same time.
Screenshot from Kajaki: “Long periods of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror” (unattributable quote).
The film opens with a British army medic very displeased that his swim has been interrupted by local fishermen using explosives, a phenomenon common to not just Afghans, but to British and Americans in Afghanistan (see videos here, here and here). The British soldier releases a torrent of barely decipherable abuse against the “cheeky midgets” (which I assume is slang for Afghan children) before returning to base. From here, the viewer is introduced to the life of soldiers in Helmand in 2006: lots of boredom, sarcastic joking insults, working out with rocks and one fire-fight with the insurgents that seems so ordinary that it may as well have been scheduled by previous agreement.
Eventually the soldiers go on patrol and get stuck in a minefield. From here on it is a stressful film to watch, with death possible at any second. As for the graphic injuries, you will be quite uncomfortable keeping an eye on the screen unless you have been desensitized by medical emergency room dramas or documentaries.
Screenshot from Kajaki: A soldier marks off a buried mine.
Not only the French and British can be seen escaping from various predicaments in Afghanistan, but the Russians as well. And in this case it is not the Soviet Afghan War, but the real-life Taleban detention of a Russian transport plane crew in 1995 (for background, see here), retold in the 2010 film Kandagar (Russian for Kandahar). The Russian plane crew had been en route from Istanbul to Bagram to deliver Albanian weaponry to the Afghan government forces under the command of Rabbani when a Taleban MiG-21 fighter jet forced them to a land in Kandahar.
Expecting to be released quickly, the Russians soon find that the Taleban are rather unreasonable people, and that Russia is far away and quite weak at the moment. Here in Kandahar, they spend over a year in prison, waiting for their release or rescue. Eventually they begin to despair and their mental health deteriorates. The Taleban carry out mock executions on the Russians, while also forcing them to watch public executions of Afghan civilians and demanding that they convert to Islam.
Eventually, the Taleban demand that the Russians train Taleban pilots, a stroke of luck that gives them access to their airplane. From here they will start to plot their escape. But what happened in real life was significantly more bizarre. Soon-to-retire US Senator Hank Brown (Republican of Colorado), a former US Navy pilot, was visiting Afghanistan and asked for a meeting with the Russian captives. The Russians asked Senator Brown to help them get access to their plane. Brown, in turn, convinced the Taleban that they needed to let the Russians do maintenance on their plane, otherwise it will not be able to fly when the time comes for its use. Of course, the Taleban did not imagine that its use would involve the Russians beating up their Taleban captors and dramatically flying away. Osama bin Laden, quite unhappy with Senator Brown’s role in humiliating his friend Mullah Omar, placed a one million dollar bounty on Brown’s head (see here).
And, finally, there is a film that inverses the ‘escape from Afghanistan’ theme. Instead, it features an Afghan insurgent escaping from what appears to be CIA custody in Poland. This is the 2010 Polish film Essential Killing, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, famous for being exiled from communist Poland in the 1960s for the perceived anti-Soviet symbolism in his films (see biography here) .
Screenshot from Essential Killing: A Taleb lost in the Polish forest.
At the beginning of the movie the unnamed Taleb kills two American security contractors who, for reasons unknown, were wandering around an Afghan canyon smoking methamphetamine (or possibly crack cocaine). From here he is captured and water-boarded by an extremely obese American soldier. But fortunately for him, while being renditioned through Poland, wild pigs cause the CIA black site’s transport van to careen into the forest, spilling out its prisoners. The Taleb escapee kills some more Americans before running off into the wintery landscape where he stabs to death a German Shepherd, sexually assaults a woman with a baby in her arms, steals a fish from a Norwegian, kills a Pole with a chainsaw, gets high on hallucinogenic berries and sees visions of burqas everywhere, gets harassed by a vicious pack of Border Collies and is taken in by a deaf-mute who treats his wounds. But, in the end, a tree stabs the Taleb and he bleeds to death while riding atop a white horse.
Screenshot from Essential Killing: The Polish winter is no place for a Taleb.
Essential Killing is the type of artsy film that could only get made with generous subsidies, not with funds from any entity that hopes to make a profit. And in this case, the subsidies come from the governments of Poland, Norway, Ireland and France, who, like most European countries, allocate funding for the arts that includes film productions. The movie itself is a standard attempt at provocateur filmmaking, but mostly comes off as an unintentional absurdist comedy. As for its legacy, Essential Killing may find itself the only western film with a Taleb for a protagonist.
The viewing experience – from one viewer’s western perspective
Overall, there is no great post-2001 film that has Afghanistan as its subject matter. There certainly are good movies, with audiences and critics happy with film such as The Kite Runner and Charlie Wilson’s War. But there is a generous surplus of utterly forgettable and disposable films – competent enough to occupy two hours in the life of a bored person, but not memorable or likable enough to be the type of film a viewer enthusiastically suggests to their friends.
But to be fair, how many great films were created during the same time period as the events that it deals with, especially those that deal with war? Apocalypse Now was not created until after the Vietnam War had ended, German U-boat film Das Boot came out in 1981, Schindler’s List was released almost 50 years after the Holocaust, Grave of the Fireflies was released 40 years after the end of the war in Japan, and Lawrence of Arabia waited almost as long after the end of the First World War. Whether or not Afghanistan gets a truly great film in the post-2001 era, or even just another classic favorite like The Horsemen or The Man Who Would Be King, remains to be seen.
For a review of films featuring Afghanistan between 1909 and 2001, see here.
The author was unable to track down every single post-2001 western film on Afghanistan. Other movies were available but not included for various reasons. The following is a list of films not used.
Copies of these films were unavailable:
Kandahar Break (2009)
Act of Dishonour (2010)
Zenne Dancer (2012)
10th Day (2012)
The Great Man (2015)
Stones from the Desert (2015)
Low-budget ‘straight to video’ films:
Escape from Afghanistan (2002)
Fire over Afghanistan (2003)
Septem8er Tapes (2004)
The Objective (2008)
Red Sands (2009)
Pride of Lions (2014)
Jarhead 2 (2014)
Chain of Command (2015)
Battle Scars (2015)
Earth and Ashes (2004)
Stray Dogs (2004)
The Soldier’s Star (2006)
Chori Foroosh (2006)
Zolykha’s Secret (2006)
Opium War (2008)
Kabuli Kid (2008)
The Black Tulip (2010)
The Patience Stone (2012)
The Icy Sun (2013)
Soil and Coral (2013)
Author declined to watch these films based on content:
Cargo 200 (2007)
Dear John (2010)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020