Hollywood tries to turn Afghanistan’s fall into a feel-good movie
A Taliban fighter in Kabul in September. Photo: KARIM SAHIB / AFP via Getty Images
During the 20 years of Western occupation, Afghanistan has made numerous appearances in Hollywood. But whether in blockbusters like Iron Man, sitcoms like The United States of Al, or Netflix movies like War machine, none of the performances ventured beyond the standard tropes of a white Westerner coming to save Afghans from deserts and abandoned towns that look more like Agrabah than urban centers home to industry, art and culture. ‘story.
The announcement that Jake Gyllenhaal would star in The interpreter, an upcoming film directed by Guy Ritchie about an American soldier who returns to Afghanistan after his tour of duty to save the Afghan performer who previously saved his life, has been mocked online, as has the revelation of Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum – Directed ‘Afghanistan Evacuation Thriller’ about three former Special Forces members returning to Afghanistan to rescue ‘families and allies left behind’.
People pointed out that these were other examples of white saviors coming to rescue brown people from a war-torn place. “America wants a heartwarming film about saving the brown man from the savages,” said Ali Baluch, an Afghan-American producer and director from California. For Afghans, images of young men desperately clinging to US military planes in chaotic scenes at Kabul airport were symbolic of the terrible handling of the Western evacuation of Afghans and foreigners from an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban.
“People are very aware of the disaster that America has created,” Baluch said of what has happened to Afghanistan since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. This realization, he said, is the reason the studio behind Ritchie’s film plans to begin main filming in January.
“It’s a catchy sale, ‘a man travels to Afghanistan to save his friend,'” Baluch said.
Frustrations over problematic portrayals of Afghanistan are further compounded by the fact that new films are put into production as hundreds of Afghans continue to work to get people out of the Islamic Emirate from the Taliban, who, according to them, came to power due to the actions of the last two US administrations.
“We all know people who have spent countless days and weeks filling out visa forms and trying to get charter flights, the real heroes are the Afghans who have spent hours and hours learning the law of immigration overnight, “Baluch continued.
He said the reality was that the evacuations were largely about “Afghans helping other Afghans,” but that the stories Gyllenhaal, Hardy and Tatum were about to tell are ones that “wash the hands of the America ”of responsibility for what has happened to the nation since August.
Long before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan’s own film industry struggled to keep up with West-funded and created projects that often relied on Afghan crews and actors, but still failed to convey the complexities of the nation itself.
“The talented filmmakers were put at the service of embassies and NGOs, rather than having the chance to really hone their own skills,” said Sahraa Karimi, a famous Afghan filmmaker who headed the Afghan Film Directorate. in the last years of government backed by the West. This, Karimi said, created a system where the narratives around Afghanistan were almost entirely dictated from the outside.
“People’s real stories were the sacrifices of propaganda and sensational headlines. ”
Rather than creating a space like post-war Italy, where the neorealist movement allowed writers to shoot in the streets with mostly untrained actors in order to tell the stories of a society struggling to survive. rebuilding amidst poverty and destruction, Karimi said the 20 years of Western intervention has seen little investment in Afghan cultural production.
“Instead of helping Afghan cinema, they hurt it.”
This despite the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s Afghanistan was home to a small but productive film industry that created everything from historical epics to cultural and historical documentaries and Communist-mandated propaganda films. At the time, most of these filmmakers were operating on rudimentary budgets and working with small teams of motley actors. But after 2001, the cinema became an afterthought, both for the government in Kabul and the Western embassies who invested millions in questionable and poorly managed projects, Karimi said.
By occupying talented filmmakers with projects, contracts and outside productions, Karimi said Western filmmakers have created a space where they dictate the narrative around a country of over 30 million people and Afghans them. – even became team members on productions ostensibly about their country.
“Any kind of independent, real-life story about Afghanistan from Afghan filmmakers would have destroyed theirs, and that’s not good for their agenda,” Karimi told VICE World News.
Maytha Alhassen, an academic and television writer who has written extensively on Hollywood’s portrayal of Muslims, said the incoming films starring Gyllenhaal, Hardy and Tatum do little more than reduce entire regions of the world to mere tropes.
“We are mapped as a geography of violence,” Alhassen said of countries as geographically, culturally and ethnically different from each other as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Alhassen said that, whether the description of these places is mediated by news or entertainment, audiences almost always end up with a story in which “Western military force is seen as the hero” in these countries.
This conception of the foreign military as a force for good, Alhassen said, has led to a reflection where “parody equates to a count of how many Americans have died” and a system where the world knows exactly how many foreign soldiers died in Afghanistan, but the number of Afghans killed is still largely an estimate. The United Nations did not begin documenting civilian casualties in the country until 2009.
The 20 years of Western occupation have been filled with reports of abuses and killings of civilians at the hands of foreign forces, the most notable case being of a US Army sniper who killed 16 villagers in the middle of the night in Kandahar province. Hours after the 2012 murders were exposed, the world knew the name of the American soldier, Robert Bales, whom he suffered from PTSD and whom his wife had blogged about their financial troubles. Earlier this year, there were campaigns for Donald Trump, the US president who signed the 2020 peace deal with the Taliban, to grant “warrior” Bales a presidential pardon upon leaving office.
Almost a decade later, Bales’ name is still relevant today, but few can name the victims of his killing or recount the details of their lives before their murders.
The media’s handling of the aftermath of Bales’s massacre of Kandahari villagers, including women and children, was straight out of the Hollywood playbook. Baluch, the US-Afghan producer, said stories of foreign wars often saw territory similar to the response to Bales’ frenzy.
“These stories are always about the story of the soldiers,” he said. “About the white soldiers with PTSD and their worried wives at home.
He gave the film 2009 Brothers, in which Gyllenhaal played the role of the brother of an American soldier who was wrongly presumed dead and ended up suffering from PTSD, for example. The Jim Sheridan-directed film, also starring Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire, focused almost entirely on the family life of an American military family in Afghanistan, considering only a few short scenes.
Baluch said The interpreter, Guy Ritchie’s upcoming project, and Brothers are among a long list of problematic roles Gyllenhaal has taken on, including the 2010 flop Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which Baluch called “orientalist trash” and the years 2005 Jarhead, about a US Navy in Iraq.
“If you really look at Jake Gyllenhaal’s career, he’s the Republican narrative, #BlueLivesMatter personified.”
Alhassen said making Gyllenhaal a selfless American soldier might be a way to ease any guilt Westerners might feel for the way their presence in countries like Afghanistan has been handled.
“Millions of people have suffered trauma on our hands, and the way to alleviate that is through stories like this, stories that say, ‘well, some of us are good’,” he said. said Alhassen. Representatives for Gyllenhaal did not respond to requests for comment.
This need to cover up responsibility with an end to Hollywood is especially pressing in Afghanistan, where US, British and Australian forces have all been accused of murders, nightly raids, drone strikes, disappearances and abuse of civilians in the United States. during the 20 years of occupation.
The tendency to portray the white man as a heroic figure makes it easier to pass over allegations of war crimes and other abuses by Western forces, Alhassen said: to be held to account.
Ali M Latifi is an Afghan-American journalist currently based in Doha. Follow him on twitter here.