In the documentary In The Land of the Enlightened two worlds collide visually, technically and spiritually. This is a hybrid documentary, meaning some shots were staged while others focus on the environment of Afghanistan and its people through an observational style. The cast, if you may call it that, are all real people. Some of the action scenes are rehearsed and others are presented as they happen. The blur between fiction and non-fiction is intentional, as Belgium Director and Photographer Pieter-Jan De Pue takes on a non-traditional view of how to craft a true story, with imagines elements that respond to a lived experience of Afghanistan, rather than real-life depictions. Shot over seven years, the documentary focuses on the lives of a group of children who are also fighters. Their lives are all about survival and war in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Our protagonists travel in a pack and operate like a gang might. Their worldview is narrow and informed by the constant struggle of their daily lives. Their leader, a youngster in his early teens, is in love with a girl. He promises conquests and wealth to her and her father, who seems very disinterested. However, off the gang goes in search of resources, assaulting travelers in the arid mountains and securing their land. Their attachment to the landscape is primal; they treat their home as an extension of themselves and dream about the day when the land becomes a source of greatness.
The scenery is visually stunning and adds to a dream-like quality of this film. For most people in the Western hemisphere, Afghanistan is an unknown place, one where most of us will never travel to. The imagery here transports us to this unknown land and masterfully depicts the challenging terrain there. It is not only beautiful and majestic, but the contrasts in the land also show how it can be difficult to live there. Add to that bombings, the Taliban and the U.S. Army and you get a complex view of what it’s like to grow up in that environment.
While the children can be seen fighting and assaulting, it cannot escape the audience how wartime has robbed a generation of their childhood. Jan De Pue also to shows some of the more playful moments among the gang, which remind us of the innocent and inchoate mentality of these protagonists. For instance, one of the sequences depicts the children bathing and swimming. They start talking about war-time strategy and end up playing in the water, laughing and being children. It makes for a stark duality. The close-up shots on their faces show how this environment has hardened them, but there is still that lingering innocence in their deep eyes. In the Land of the Enlightened captures childhood and its resiliency and probes critical thinking about the war without raising any questions.
Alongside the images of Afghanistan and their people, Jan de Pue shows the alternative world that the U.S. Army lives in, complete with nostalgic reminders of home through letters and care packages and the difficulty of being on alert 24/7. In the meantime, soldiers talk about nothing and workout. It seems like they are passing time between meals and scheduled combat missions. Unlike a high-tension war drama, In the Land of the Enlightened shows the lulls that exist between shootings and occasional Taliban sightings. It is far from preachy, but there is a sense of futility of on-the-ground combat.
The imagery and action sequences are connected by meditative moments narrated by the leader of the Afghan posse of boys. Through a voice over, his words are thoughtful and serene, combining elements of mythical stories of the Afghan people with his own wants and desires for himself, his friends and his land. Far from simple, his thoughts depict his struggles with the reality they are facing and the magic that exists within those caves and arid mountains. The photography in this film is exquisite — a triumph when one considers the terrain where the film was shot. The aesthetic elements of the film are outstanding and help in re-creating a world that cannot be tamed and seldom is shown through the eyes of its people.
In the Land of the Enlightened documentary was released in 2016. It runs 86 minutes and it is not rated. We caught the film during the last installment of the AFI DOCS 2016 at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland. Check other film festivals to see if its playing near you, as it does not have U.S. distribution.
(Copyright 2016 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)