film REVIEW | December 10, 2001
by Stuart Klawans
s I was
saying: When you look at certain films side by side, you begin to see
reality shape the imagination. Here's Jung (War) in the Land of the
Mujaheddin, a blood-and-guts documentary about life in Afghanistan two
decades into the present slaughter. Right next to it is Kandahar,
which addresses the same subject in the mode of poetry. The first film,
made by the Italian team of Alberto Vendemmiati, Fabrizio Lazzaretti and
Giuseppe Petitto, comes at you with the urgency of war-front journalism.
The second, written and directed by Iran's brilliant Mohsen Makhmalbaf,
operates under an entirely different kind of pressure. It's driven by a
need to describe things clearly and, in the same gesture, to transform
|THE RETURN OF
Stuart Klawans is back from his leave and will be
reviewing films in The Nation magazine biweekly.
Do you need to choose between these two approaches? I'd say no. In the
first place, circumstances have given must-see status to both pictures. In
the second place, the films keep overlapping.
Both Jung and Kandahar begin with the arrival of would-be
rescuers, whose helicopters bob like mechanical gnats over the deep-cleft
mountains. First we see the terrain, which is vast, daunting, magnificent;
then come the people, who are starving and shattered. Many figures are
incomplete, with limbs ending abruptly in a stump; and too often the
bodies have vanished altogether, to be replaced by ambulatory drapes.
What's it like to be an Afghan woman, buried within the burqa's folds? In
both films, the camera tries to show you, taking an outward peep through
the face-covering mesh.
The filmmakers who ventured into this country in 1999 and
2000--outsiders who came not just to rescue but to report and
polemicize--seem to have built their statements from the few available
terms: hunger, pain, displacement, vastness, obscurity. Think of these
elements as representing a base condition, and tremble--because what
you're seeing was the irreducible experience of yesterday's Afghanistan,
before the United States started bombing.
Jung doesn't pretend to build its limited vocabulary into
anything shapely. The movie wants you to see that it's been jerry-rigged,
in much the same way as its protagonists improvise a hospital with
whatever comes to hand. The rescuers in this case are two medical
professionals from the aid group Emergency--surgeon Gino Strada and nurse
Kate Rowlands--who enter Afghanistan with the veteran journalist Ettore
Mo. Thanks to his longstanding relationship with the Northern Alliance, Mo
is able to introduce the medical team to Burhanuddin Rabbani, the ousted
president of Afghanistan, and to the (now late) military commander Ahmed
Shah Massoud, who grant permission to build a hospital within their
territory. The hospital, Strada explains, is intended for civilian
casualties of landmines. In the next breath--perhaps insuring his hosts'
cooperation, perhaps bowing to reality--Strada adds that he'll treat
combatants as well.
But what does it mean to be a noncombatant in Afghanistan? The
filmmakers bring us to the marketplace of Charikar, the town selected for
the hospital, to meet the civilians: war widows reduced to beggary, young
children employed as metalworkers. A scrawny boy rattles off his
workshop's list of products, and then, as if having reached the end of his
possibilities, rattles them off again. A woman, bent and desiccated, tells
us her life is unbearable, yet cannot be escaped: "Not even Death wants
the people of Afghanistan."
As for the fighters: The camera takes us into the hovel that was
serving as Charikar's dispensary, so we can see how Strada pulls shrapnel
from the hole that used to be a man's eye, or how he removes the bloody
pulp dangling from a teenager's thigh. Strada works with no X-rays and
precious little anesthesia, in an operating room heated by a dung-burning
stove. When he learns that he can't change his scrubs between operations
or use a fresh amputation saw--where's the autoclave, by the way?--he
temporarily stalks out, leaving the teenager strapped to a cruciform
Can things get any worse? Sure. The Emergency medics fly back to Italy
to arrange for a shipment of supplies; by the time they return, the
Taliban have taken Charikar. Strada and Rowlands have to set up in another
area, amid the tents of refugees. Medical care? "There are 100,000 people
out there with nothing," Rowlands snaps.
Things can also get better. In August 1999, seven truckloads of
supplies and equipment get through from Italy, and Strada and Rowlands set
up a real hospital in Anbar. They hire a staff, 80 percent of whom are
Kurds; they banish weapons and burqas from the wards and even persuade the
Northern Alliance to park its tanks elsewhere. Considering what you've
witnessed till now, you will perhaps excuse Jung for treating these
achievements as a climax, and for turning Strada and Rowlands into heroes.
There, too, reality seems to have shaped the storytellers' imaginations.
Besides, in its final effect Jung is anything but celebratory.
The film ends with scenes of Afghans in the midst of mourning and burial,
and of the Emergency team making plans to open another hospital--this one,
for the sake of political neutrality, to be built in the Taliban zone. You
don't need the perspective of recent events to see the irony. All of the
Emergency facilities may have been blown up by now, and all the patients
with them; yet as Strada, Rowlands and the filmmakers seem to have
understood, the likelihood of futility was in this case no excuse for
inaction. Jung is rough, visceral and harsh--but it's also
undespairing, and indispensable.
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