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A New Resistance: Far From Afghanistan

With the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan entering its second decade, and the effects of war extending far past the front line, documentary cinema has done little to help us understand the nature of the occupation at large. This makes Far From Afghanistan valuable in its content as well as its approach. The film comprises five distinct segments, each created by different filmmakers—Soon-Mi Yoo, Travis Wilkerson, Minda Martin, Jon Jost, and John Gianvito—plus interstitial materials from the Afghan Voices film collective. Some segments veer more towards traditional narrative, others are more experimental, but taken together the film’s diverse perspectives, brought together under the supervision of Gianvito, give a strong impression of how the ever-reaching tentacles of empire affect those not only in Afghanistan, but also on home soil.

Unlike Gianvito’s most recent film, Vapor Trail (Clark), about the toxic legacy of the U.S.’s military presence in the Philippines, Far From Afghanistan does not take a single location as its subject. In Vapor Trail (Clark), Gianvito is most concerned with exposing the atrocities that continue to occur in Pampanga province and with providing a space for those who live there to voice their experiences. While the earlier film functioned as an epic chronicle of colonial violence, Far From Afghanistan is more immediate, working as a call to action that nonetheless never attempts to abridge the timeline of U.S. occupation in Afghanistan. The film manages to be informative without paralyzing the viewer with dates and details, and at times presents the kind of vital information often absent from our domestic news reporting, such as the increasing competition over lithium reserves in Afghanistan, crucial to U.S. technology companies.

While the film may borrow its title and structure from the 1967 film Far From Vietnam, the two films’ approaches contrast vastly. Far From Afghanistan relies less on street debates and protest scenes involving those for and against the war, and instead engages directly with the war’s impact on the bodies of those it affects and the spaces they inhabit. It is less a film about how we talk about the violence put forth by our country than how the traces of that violence persist in the lives of all involved, both those who receive and initiate it. In this way, instead of attempting to depict protest, the film is in itself an act of protest. Its focused documentation of the aftermath of war—the physical disabilities caused to Afghanis from bombings and the psychological health problems such as P.T.S.D. and depression that U.S. soldiers face—acts as a form of resistance to the ways in which this anguish is often shielded from persons living in the United States. This allows the film to represent voices from the Left in a less binary manner than is depicted in the film’s ’60s predecessor. Far From Vietnam presents its comments on the U.S. military attacks against communism in East Asia while largely ignoring the perspectives of filmmakers from the United States. Far From Afghanistan, by contrast, undoubtedly benefits from the inclusion of a variety of filmmakers. While almost all of these filmmakers work or teach in the U.S., not all focus their filmmaking domestically, or claim this country as their singular nationality.

Far From Afghanistan continually emphasizes its international scope by shifting between perspectives, American and Afghan, individual and collective. Gianvito’s segment, “My Heart Swims in Blood,” cuts from a man leisurely getting himself ready for bed to other peaceful indulgences of those far removed from the war. In voiceover we hear recountings of military violence against innocent Afghans going about their everyday activities—children killed while eating breakfast, teenagers attacked while selling ice cream—a sharp contrast to the images of comfort at home. But while the camera is turned onto our own nation in Gianvito’s segment and often throughout the movie, there are also various forms of military, news, and archival footage from the Middle East. In Soon-Mi Yoo’s “Afghanistan: The Next Generation,” Yoo focuses primarily on the daily life of girls in Afghanistan, and the abuses they face upon seeking education and equal status. Some have been left physically deformed after having acid thrown on them for going to school, but through interviews their determination amist the brutality is clear.

This is not the only account of the expenses left on bodies in both countries. The film opens with footage of a physical rehabilitation center in Afghanistan, and closes with Travis Wilkerson’s segment, “Fragments of Dissolution,” which deals with veteran suicides. The bridging of these beginning and end bookmarks humanizes the harm done not only where combat occurs, but where its impact remains as well. Wilkerson’s ending offers a counterpoint to the long diatribe in Far From Vietnam in which a woman sits unresponsive on a bed being lectured to by someone who appears to be her boyfriend. Wilkerson, by contrast, interviews female family members of veterans who have committed suicide, but does so with little interference. By allowing these survivors space to voice the struggles of their loved ones lost to psychological trauma, some small amount of justice is granted in the face of incomprehensible suffering.

In her segment “The Long Distance Operator,” Minda Martin also works one-on-one with US Army war veterans—namely drone pilots and their families—casting them in a narrative based upon their own experiences. While this segment makes no excuses for the destruction they have perpetrated, Martin offers insight into the effectiveness of the military-industrial complex. By funneling taxpayer money into the war efforts, rather than social services, those employed by the military become the primary sources of income for their struggling families. Jon Jost’s piece, “Empire’s Cross,” serves as an apt companion to Martin’s as he shows the text of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prophetic 1961 farewell address, in which the President’s haunting warning about “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” appears to have manifested fully in the last 50 years. In conjunction with this, we see news footage of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as images of the faces of those who perpetrated the attacks 12 years ago.

While the film was in part initiated to mark the 10-year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, its focus is inherently more expansive than a mere benchmark commiseration. A decade into the U.S. occupation, Far From Afghanistan serves not only as a salient reminder of the lasting damage that has been done, but also as a model for activism through collective documentary film. And this act of collective memory itself points the way to future action. In a voiceover conversation with Noam Chomsky at the beginning of the film, David Barsamian brings up a quotation from Bertrand Russell: “It is in the nature of imperialism that citizens of the imperial power are always among the last to know—or care—about circumstances in the colonies.” Chomsky then replies, “I disagree with him about care. I think they do care, and I think that’s why they’re the last to know. They’re the last to know because of massive propaganda campaigns that keep them from knowing...And I think the reason for the that people do care, and if they find out, they’re not going to let it happen.”

Far From Afghanistan screens locally at the Anthology Film Archives November. 8 – 10. To stay updated about future screenings visit Far From Afghanistan.


Laura Paul

Laura Paul is a photographer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She holds a M.A. from UCLA in Cinema and Media Studies where she studied experimental film. She is the founder of the publishing collective Fluxus Los Angeles Projects.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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