Sunday 10 July 2016

Sydney Film Festival (26) - Max Berghouse finds THE LAND OF THE ENLIGHTENED

First the good things. The Land of the Enlightened by documentarist Pieter-Jan De Pue, a Belgian, has been shot, apparently over a seven-year period, in super 16 mm film stock and the result is absolutely stunning. The director as his own director of photography, achieves quite beautiful results which I found genuinely surprising given the medium utilised. He has also photographed areas that, at least to me, are not immediately familiar, compared to other images I have seen of that wretched country. Of course those latter images concentrate on the village and countryside most immediately affected by war and here images of the most enthralling beauty are of the Hindu Kush and Pamir Mountains.
Within the aspect of documentary are some very fine shots of an outpost of American and Afghan soldiers, in a camp on the very periphery of the "safe" zone controlled by the coalition. It seems very realistic with all the mess not only of living but of war detritus collected by a significant group of non-house trained male soldiers. This includes the almost obligatory shot of an American soldier discharging and probably wastefully, a very noisy heavy calibre machine gun. Not knowing much about such things, I think it is the famous ".50  cal heavy". Makes a lovely sound! Unfortunately this does very little for the onward momentum of the film. Just another example of boys with toys/men with guns which while momentarily exciting, really adds nothing.
Beyond the documentary elements is what is presumably a fictional narrative - the group of very young children, mainly boys, all apparently prepubescent, all armed, and living without adult support in the mountains, and involved in scavenging and trading activities including of opium. In sum they are small-time standover merchants. Many films, documentary or otherwise, make the mistake of concentrating attention on the dominant ethnic group within Afghanistan, the Pashtuns (called in those faraway days of the British Empire, the Pathans).Gholam, the head of the gang and the others appear to be one of the minority ethnic groups, with significantly more Asian appearance. In the credits all the actors appear under their own names and it is hard to work out just what is fictional in the storyline and what is capturing real life as lived.
There is an apparent attempt to unify the fictional aspects of the film by showing Gholam's attempts to raise money to marry one of the equally young female camp followers. Seeing a young girl possibly eight or nine as the object of a purchased marriage arrangement, is scarcely comfortable, fictional or otherwise. In any event all these aspects of the film are very episodic, not necessarily coherent and generally underplayed. That I suppose is the consequence of using nonprofessional factors. In the end the film is very much less than the sum of its parts. The extended dramatisation of the children's lives which presumably intermingles some fact with fiction is sufficiently uncertain as to raise much the same doubts as to the documentary aspect.
The film just reached the point, without quite passing it, of overstaying its welcome. There are some things I vaguely knew as a matter of history, for example that Afghanistan has been for thousands of years the world centre of mining and trading in lapis lazuli, but I've never seen any footage of the actual mines which are shown in the film, unnecessarily in my view as this aspect adds little to the film. The earlier scenes utilising a male voice over describing apparently the mythical origins of the Afghan people, seems odd in a country of such severe and certain Islamic faith, as does a further voice-over commenting on the way the country has been, throughout history, plundered to no benefit by foreign powers.
I felt this film judged in "filmic" terms to be unsuccessful but I should indicate that it seemed to be both honest and extremely earnest.

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