The current news coverage of Afghanistan has suffered from a virtual absence of native voices, and while film distributors have picked up Iran's latest on Afghan refugees (Hassan Yektapanah's Djomeh, Majid Majidi's upcoming Baran, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's over-praised Kandahar), the must-see documentary about the blighted nation comes from three Italians: Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin (opening at Cinema Village on Friday), made by Fabrizio Lazzaretti, Alberto Vendemmiati, and Giuseppe Petitto. Timeliness is just one of its merits.
Shot in Northern Alliance strongholds in the Panjshir Valley, Jung chronicles the construction of a war hospital for land-mine victims by the Italian relief agency Emergency in 2000. "Our challenge was to become invisible," says Lazzaretti in a satellite phone interview from Kabul, where he and Vendemmiati are shooting another documentary. "That means to develop human bonds that transcend the usual role of documentary filmmakers."
On the first of three trips to Afghanistan between fall 1999 and summer 2000 while following Emergency's Gino Strada, a surgeon, and war correspondent Ettore Mo as they scouted for potential hospital locations, Lazzaretti and Vendemmiati lived in barracks with rebel soldiers, occasionally filming them in combat against the Taliban. "Going to the front line is lucid folly," says Vendemmiati, 36, a graduate of the Italian Film School in Rome, where he met Petitto. "You know what's coming, so it's not a big deal." Sometimes, however, attacks happened away from the front. "Snipers ambushed us, once, in an open border zone," he says. "They saw the cameras and we became their target." Other times they risked stepping on the land mines that litter the region, planted since the Soviet occupation by one retreating army or another.
Once the hospital was completed under Dr. Strada's supervision, people mangled by land mines were rushed to the emergency room for amputations. "At first we were shocked," says Lazzaretti, 35, who learned the trade on the field with his father, Francesco, a well-known war correspondent. "We were awed by their dignity and strength. Some children who were carted in without a leg didn't shed a tear. It took a long time to get used to that."
"We always shot what was happening, never staging anything," says Petitto, 32, who joined Lazzaretti and Vendemmiati on the last trip after the hospital's grim routine started taking its toll. The trio built an editing room powered by a generator in the hospital, continuing to shoot and edit simultaneously.
"We wanted to bring attention to a forgotten war," says Lazzaretti, the phone connection crackling with the rumble of American B-52s overhead. "Now Jungis part of history. Hopefully it will be used to reflect on the events that led to September 11 and as a reminder during the peace process."
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