Unholy Wars


The obvious media hero of the Afghan war only got his 15 minutes on American TV in death. On September 9, suicide bombers disguised as a TV crew blew up Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, just in time for conflicting reports about his death to make the September 11 New York Times. Had he lived, the networks would have counter-programmed the “Lion of the Panjshir” into iconicity: With his sharp eyes, weary smile, and battle-ready wit, he was a Subcomandante Marcos with combat experience, and he’d have bested bin Laden in those first few volleys of post-attack propaganda, wiping out the Alliance’s bad press with the moral authority of a freedom fighter in a 20-year campaign for independence. In Massoud l’Afghan, Christophe de Ponfilly, his video hagiographer, likens him to Che Guevara and Bob Dylan, shows him playing football and reading poetry with his lieutenants, and reveals that Massoud lent him his precious satellite phone to call his dying father in Europe. Ever mindful of his audience, Massoud himself cites de Gaulle, and wonders aloud why the Americans have forsaken him. He doesn’t fight from a cave or a carrier thousands of miles away, either: De Ponfilly’s got him standing on the front line, calling strike locations into a radio, dodging recoil and incoming ordnance. But then he’s also Cincinnatus (or Gladiator‘s Maximus), forgoing his personal ambition and quietly sitting by as his homeland dissolves into chaos after he routs the Soviets.

He came to regret it; in Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin, a surgically explicit account of an Italian team’s effort to open a hospital for land-mine victims, Massoud denounces the Pakistanis for using the Taliban to continue the war in the post-Soviet era. One of the doctors, Geno Strada, attributes his quixotic project to a love for Massoud and his people, and begs his protection for the facility. The Italians, no doubt inspired by de Ponfilly’s films, allow Massoud to claim the (literal) high ground, denouncing the Taliban for indiscriminately shelling civilians in Kabul (as if he knew where his own shells would land). In retrospect, each awkward interview with the cagey general is a tense pre-creation of his death scene. In this month’s Vanity Fair, Sebastian Junger says the assassins bided their time, setting up their camera and asking Massoud about Osama before pulling the trigger.

Considering the depth of the hunger for images of Afghanistan and the fatal limitations on spot journalism, New York audiences have done pretty well: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s fictionalized Kandahar, filmed on the Afghan border, opened here last month; Saira Shah’s Beneath the Veil and Unholy War, personal accounts of her travels within Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, aired repeatedly on CNN; and Jung was at Cinema Village in November (as Michael Atkinson wrote here, “It smokes CNN”). Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati, the directors of Jung, will screen it at the Walter Reade Sunday along with some recent footage, for those who can stomach it. In the days before and after, the theater will feature two programs of de Ponfilly: Massoud, shown with Kabul at the End of the World (1993), which it excerpts, and Dust of War (1990), which also delves into Byelorussia. If you don’t count the Shah stuff, the Osama tapes, or Johnny Walker’s interrogation, the series (called “Afghanistan Then and Now”—”then” being before the Soviets) probably offers all of the videotape of the Afghan interior that is now commercially available. As if the footage weren’t horrific enough, try to imagine the movie that still can’t be made: the same scenes in the aftermath of months of additional allied bombing.

Given the physical difficulties of producing these films, it’s unavoidable that their dominant subtext is the process of their manufacture, but their modest self-absorption can’t diminish the unimaginably prolonged suffering of the Afghan people they depict. According to the title character of Tony Kushner’s play Homebody/Kabul, an Afghan proverb holds, “The man who has patience has roses; the man who has no patience, has no pants.” Twenty years proved too long for even Massoud to wait, and from the evidence in these films, most Afghans don’t have a pair of pants to show for it.