Matthieu Aikins is a journalist whose writing on Afghanistan has appeared in Harper’s, the Guardian, the Walrus and other publications. He splits his time between Kabul and New York. Follow Matthieu on Twitter @mattaikins.
Why is it that I instinctively resist embed films? I loved war movies as a kid. They still get me going. But the minute I start seeing and hearing scenes shot by a journalist or filmmaker embedded with foreign soldiers in Afghanistan — images of choppers descending into blooming clouds of dust or the jerky crack and rattle of a firefight — some part of me tenses up and I feel myself resisting the film.
It’s not that I haven’t been on, or written about, embeds myself. That’s what it is, I think — it’s the same resistance that I’ve steeled myself to feel when out in the field, knowing well the power of watching a well-coordinated assault unfold, of sweeping across Afghanistan’s epic landscape in a roaring helicopter or of the force and charisma of a senior officer at the top of his game, making life-and-death decisions over hundreds of people under his command. There is a powerful seduction there, one that marshals up a narrative of order and progress, of good intention, that binds you with its protagonists and teleology — the soldiers and their war — until its persuasiveness can seem almost total. And yet it’s a world in many ways utterly divorced from the reality of Afghanistan, the result of an epistemological dichotomy that gets to the heart of what’s gone wrong with the military mission there.
I can see that Janus Metz is wrestling with the same thing. His documentary, which achieves a level of cinematography and authorial intensity about the international military mission in Afghanistan matched only by Danfung Dennis’ Hell and Back Again, conveys a deep sense of unease about the way in which the war is being fought. He’s clearly sympathetic in his portrayals of the suffering of the locals. But they remain fleeting ciphers, appearing only through the brief contact that occurs when they cross the barbed wire and blast walls of the base, or when the soldiers venture out into the hostile environment of the village. By contrast, when three Danes from a neighboring unit are killed by an IED, their deaths become real and immediate to us in the faces of the soldiers, the frightened voices of their mothers, the drama of solemn camaraderie.
My point is not whether embedded filmmakers support the war or not — I don’t think that Metz does. It’s about a more fundamental predicament: How can we understand and evaluate the war in the first place? The embed film, as a genre, teaches us just how the narrative must be defined by its protagonists and their own ways of knowing.
In the second half of the film, when an elderly farmer is asked to come to the base to receive compensation for his cow, killed by a Danish mortar round, he makes excuses for a journey that would be personally dangerous. “Muzh… watan staridi,” he says. “We… the nation is exhausted.”
The line conveys a deeper tragedy about Afghanistan that we can barely perceive. We cannot enter into that narrative. In the end, the camera, the soldiers and we will leave Afghanistan. Afghans will stay on in a reality invisible to the embedded eye.
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