Monday, 14 September 2009

Review: Taliban Country, Carmela Baranowska (2004)

What Baranowska is trying to show in her documentary is that US Marine insensitivity toward local tribes led to some members of them actively participating with the Taliban.

In fact, the part of Uruzgan province in Afghanistan where the video was shot is not, strictly speaking, ‘Taliban country’. We hear that the Taliban had visited about three days before the Marines, but had left soon after.

Uncommitted Afghanis do not automatically side with one party or the other, in this war of East against West. Above all they value their honour. By harrassing the tribesmen, the Marines blemished their honour. “We would rather die than be treated like this,” they say.

What did the Americans do? The tribesmen say the Americans searched them, stripped them naked, fondled their anuses and testicles, and laughed at them. Under Islam, nakedness is a sin. Touching the genitals is also haram. There is no doubt that these men will not soon forget their humiliation. Near the end of the video one of them described how easy it would be, now, to go to the Taliban. “I know where they are,” he said.

Of course the tribesmen could be lying in order to heighten the negative effect of the Marines’ visit. How would the Marines know that fingering an Afghani’s anus was haram? But if they are lying they are all lying in concert. Their stories are eerily similar in content.

In any case it is easy to sympathise with these simple people of the hilly, rock-strewn foothills. They are welcoming of Baranowska when they had no reason to be. They tell everything in a straight-forward way that leaves little room for doubt.

Their culture is so alien, however. This is a place where death is not the greatest misfortune. The codes of honour are deeply ingrained in a land where the extent of official legal reach is probably not deep. Each man and woman knows their own place. They live within a philosophy of Islam as the ultimate arbiter and everyone understands the rules.

In a place with such broadly shared beliefs there is no room for either doubt or argument. But this consensus leaves open, once again, the possibility that their stories are made-up for effect. The script is ready-at-hand, if you were looking for an excuse to lay more blame at the door of the infidels than had been warranted by experience.

Baranowska does not judge. She is the observer. The magic in this film is that she took a chance – and not a trivial one – and returned alone to walk fearless in an alien land, the land of the muezzin and the headscarf.

The video is not long. In fact, it runs for less than an hour. While some might see this as a tonic measure in these days of marathon screenings, by the end of the video I was still wanting more.

But Baranowska’s options were severely restricted due to the circumstances under which she shot the film. Initially embedded with the marines, she was banished to Kabul but returned under her own steam, as I wrote earlier this month.

There is no doubt that the footage obtained while working independent of the Marines is superior. Tribesmen are far more willing to talk in the absence of their tormentors. Using a sole translator, she is able to solicit honest and full accounts of what happened.

The film reminds us that good journalism needs to be neither sanctioned nor lengthy.

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