San Francisco Bay Guardian
By Robert Avila
March 2002

War torn: Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin is the rare exception to a world cinema that follows Hollywood's rules of engagement.
Retrench!
Startling documentary Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin leads us away from Hollywood's war movie frenzy.

A group of 254 British veterans from the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and the Gulf War have just brought suit against their Ministry of Defense for not adequately preparing them for the "horrors of war." The revelation that anyone in our shared Anglo-American mass culture could miss the point that war is a terrible, dehumanizing, and deeply destructive affair may say something about the way we on both sides of the Atlantic see war in general. Or didn't they catch Saving Private Ryan over there? Despite our culture's saturation with depictions of war - especially since the merciless reality of Sept. 11 - it's possible that we ourselves remain far from prepared for the real thing. Ever since Steven Spielberg resurrected the war movie genre with a whole new style of battlefield realism, war movies pretend to more than just entertainment. They propose to educate us as well, claiming something like the authority of a documentary in their exacting portrayal of battle and fidelity to the historical record. We may take them at their word when they style themselves as not just action movies but also exercises in patriotism. That's patriotism equated with militarism, a patriotism that's difficult to distinguish from an ad for the armed services.

The current rush to put one militaristic fantasy after another onto America's movie screens - We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down and Hart's War and Wind Talkers - smacks of more than dollar signs chasing after war fever. With the announcement in December of a campaign to use Muhammad Ali as emissary to the Muslim world, Hollywood put on record its desire to share in the war effort. But on whose behalf will it be working? The Ali campaign nicely dovetailed with the Pentagon's short-lived Office of Strategic Influence, designed in the wake of Sept. 11 to sway public opinion abroad with true and possibly false information fed to the foreign media. A hail of criticism quickly consigned the Pentagon's "Ministry of Truth" to the memory hole, but meanwhile, on the home front, who's better at strategic influence (a.k.a. wagging the dog) than Hollywood?

Hollywood's leaders worry about appearing too cozy with government when it comes to fighting terror, but films like Black Hawk Down nevertheless rely on the assistance of the military for equipment and personnel, including in this case two Army colonels who acted as script consultants to director Ridley Scott. (Interestingly, in publicly disassociating himself from the film at a recent speech at Columbia University, reprinted on CounterPunch's Web site, actor Brendan Sexton III noted that the script's initial if limited questioning of America's objectives in Somalia never made it into the final cut.) Similarly, Randall "Pearl Harbor" Wallace's We Were Soldiers relies on a firsthand account cowritten by a battlefield colonel, a man (portrayed in the movie by Mel Gibson) whose paternalistic depiction of the racial, emotional, and political harmony of the army simply defies belief. If not outright propaganda pictures, such films inevitably share much of the perspective of the military itself. Their "educational value" lies squarely within the general outlook of the military establishment, including its idea of the nature of warfare, of duty to one's country, and the assumption that the military is an unproblematic extension of core American values.

A new documentary on pre-Sept. 11 Afghanistan's civil war provides an instructive contrast to Hollywood's war. Even with the United States engaged in an ongoing conflict in the region, Afghanistan is a startlingly unfamiliar place in Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin. Passionate and artfully constructed, the Italian-made documentary, shot during three trips in 1999 and 2000, is the introduction to the people of Afghanistan still largely missing from post-Sept. 11 news coverage. It is also a sobering commentary on the nature of war at a time when Hollywood seems bent on giving us only paeans to the military.

Jung (pronounced "jang," the Dari word for war) chronicles a European-based effort to open a hospital in the Panjshir Valley of northern Afghanistan, near the front line where mujahideen forces later known as the Northern Alliance battled the Taliban in the latest phase of a 20-year conflict. Leading the mission are an Italian surgeon and a British nurse from Italy's human rights agency Emergency and a veteran Italian war correspondent with contacts among the mujahideen leadership. They are drawn to a country whose misery has been largely ignored by the international community. If that's no longer true, the humanitarian crisis depicted in the film is far from over.

In a self-consciously cinematic but well-balanced style, filmmakers Fabrizio Lazzaretti, Alberto Vendemmiati, and Giuseppe Petitto use slow motion, montage, multiple camera angles, and a soundtrack incorporating local music and a haunting modern score. Intended to draw the widest possible audience to the film, according to a statement by Petitto, the style underscores the strangeness of the landscape's snow-covered mountains and rubble-filled valley, a place of physical and social devastation, remote and exotic, where a preindustrial culture dreadfully mingles with modern weaponry. In addition to the eloquent impressions of the European trio, the documentary records short encounters with former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani and legendary military leader Ahmed Shah Masood, "the Lion of Panjshir," (assassinated just two days before the attacks on New York and Washington).

But the most powerful impressions come from ordinary Afghans, whether in the midst of battle in front-line trenches, in abject poverty and grief, or in makeshift operating rooms where land mine victims, many of them children, are treated before our eyes. Women give candid accounts of Taliban brutality, a fearsome influence that keeps them completely shrouded. "We are poor people without any hope," one says. "We can't go anywhere. Our hope is that these Taliban go away, disappear." Children long for an end to the war so that they can go back to school. The suffering is made more excruciating by Afghans who ask why the world has forgotten them and by our foreknowledge that the removal of the Taliban has yet to bring them peace and security.

Jung offers little in the way of background to the war, which can lend the impression that these mujahideen are unproblematically on the side of the Afghan people, when in reality their campaign was equally responsible for the maiming and killing of innocents. Still, the film's sympathies clearly rest with the noncombatants on either side of the fighting. The perspective of the Italian journalist, Ettore Mo, can easily stand in for that of the filmmakers. "I am more interested in the hidden outcome of things than in general politics or military strategies," he says. "I'm interested in the little facts. I'm interested in people. In other words, I'm on the side of those who suffer in silence most of the time."

If Jung shows the guerrillas as human beings rather than monsters (even Taliban prisoners of war get a hearing), it does so somberly, aware that they are nevertheless terribly misguided. In a telling scene, a convalescing soldier fills the ward with a spirited battle song as other patients look on in dismal silence. After the soldier is discharged we see him returning to the front to fight some more. The goal of building a functioning hospital in the Panjshir Valley succeeds, but it's a deeply qualified victory. The cycle of violence perpetuated by the enthusiasm for the front is part of the disheartening reality of war and accounts for the film's contagious mixture of despair and hope.

Jung is the rare exception to a world cinema that follows Hollywood's rules of war. Since it is unlikely that the U.S. government will ever again make the mistake of allowing television cameras to show us our wars up close and risk what they call the "Vietnam syndrome," our images of war will otherwise continue to rely heavily on Hollywood's carefully constructed reenactments (couched, of course, in melodramatic formulas that include obligatory sermonizing on the noble sacrifices attendant in warfare). Such depictions move us further from the reality of war even as they revel in the minutia of battlefield statistics. After all, if even soldiers (albeit British ones) can find themselves completely unprepared for "the horrors of war," it's clear Hollywood isn't doing its job. Or, then again, maybe it is.v 'Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin' plays Fri/15-Thurs/28, Roxie Cinema. See Rep Clock, in Film listings, for show times.

 

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