Interviews

Deadly payload

The eight Hivos Tiger Award Nominees had their own special day at the festival. Our Young Film Critics, Archana Nathan, Taylor Hess, Martin Kudlaç and Rowan El Shimi, saw the nominees and wrote reviews on all of them.

"I have to dig you out carefully… I’m unearthing you slowly. Don’t explode anymore… You’re my friend. I’ll get you out of the ground… No more war. Now we’ll go home together."

By IFFR Young Film Critic Archana Nathan

A little boy in the Pamir Mountains in Afghanistan, perhaps all of twelve or thirteen, is telling a land mine this as he digs it out with a stone. We see he has lost one of his legs and sits uneasily by the side of the half-buried, live land mine. Caressing it, desperately hoping it will not explode, he manages to pull it out so he can sell it later. Not too far away, other children are scurrying around in the cold, looting abandoned American military hardware. We see them gathering up their deadly loot with a professionalism that is uncanny, searing and gut-wrenching. Photojournalist-fi lmmaker Pieter-Jan De Pue introduces us to these children with an eerily happy tune in the background that strangely reminds us of children at a fair, raiding candy stalls.

But there are no candy stalls in the war-torn, cold, invaded landscape of the Pamir Mountains, as De Pue shows us in his film The Land of the Enlightened. De Pue delves into the heart of Afghanistan to tells us the story of these children. Fourteen-year-old Gholam Nasir is the main protagonist. He is in love with a girl and wants one day to marry her. But, he realizes, he needs to be rich to ask her father for her hand. So he and his gang of fourteen-year-olds raid passing caravans for opium, lapis lazuli and other gems. Nasir's goal is to live with his wife like a king in the palace in Kabul! "The Afghans are still waiting for their king," De Pue reminds us at the beginning of the film.

Attacked by the Taliban

De Pue sets Nasir’s tender dream against the backdrop of the imminent withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan. In a part-documentary, part-fiction narrative, he pits the reality of Afghanistan against the dreams of its children. Can Nasir realize his dream in the Afghanistan he lives in? "I worked almost eight years on this film", De Pue says. "I was working as a photojournalist and travelled to Afghanistan pretty often. During the making of my photo reports, I discovered the different groups that were involved in weapons trafficking, opium cultivation and gem smuggling. I also discovered many stories about the reality of many children and their dreams – how they saw Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the American troops. It was then that I decided to make this film. While shooting, initially, we were attacked by the Taliban; then I realized if I need to make this film, we need to be more low-profi le. That’s when I zeroed in on an area which was relatively uncontroversial. We did an audition of sorts and I discovered Nasir. As soon as I met him, I realized that he could, in my film, stand for the dreams of children. He was already a leader in his surroundings," he explains.

Beautiful landscapes

If Nasir's story is largely a fictionalized narrative, despite its roots in real stories, the large documentary portions of the film centre around a US army unit stationed on a hill. "It was really interesting to film these soldiers from where they were located. I realized they are isolated and have only an idea of what Afghanistan looks like, but they are never in Afghanistan. What this does is create situations where the soldiers project ideas onto the landscape and its people, and that’s also what we see in the film."

De Pue makes a conscious effort to capture the beautiful landscape of the region with his aesthetically framed shots that have clear roots in his photographic practice. The beauty of the landscape makes the story he narrates even more heartrending. "The situation is perhaps the worst right now. There is an even weaker government. The Taliban is taking over more terrain. People have to rely on the Afghan army for security now, but they are pretty weak and depend on NATO at the moment. (Pauses) But, the reason I made this fi lm is because I wanted to show the resilience of the Afghan people. They are really proud people and they have solutions for everything. They will make the best of it. Like Nasir does, in the film."