Published in The Afghanistan Analysts
Christian Bleuer on 11 September 2015
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. 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.
To be Continued….In the next part………………….