Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

The irony of power

AFGHANISTAN / Ibrahim Nash'at's Hollywoodgate navigates the complex narrative of conquest and control in Taliban-led Afghanistan. A film where the spoils of war meet the spectre of governance.

Hollywoodgate by Egyptian director Ibrahim Nash’at is, at many levels, an extraordinary feat of striking documentary filmmaking that becomes a political and humanistic statement for our times. An insightful and straightforward portrait of the Taliban warriors taking over the military bases abandoned by the US army in Kabul reveals not only the world normally not seen in the Western media but also captures the vast cultural differences shaping the contemporary global political reality. It is an example of the filmmaker’s pure bravery in the world of warlords focused on making their main goal – the killing of opponents – more and more effective.

Hollywoodgate Ibrahim Nash'at
Hollywoodgate, a film by Ibrahim Nash’at

Taliban control

In August 2021, American troops withdrew from Afghanistan after twenty years of presence in the country. The director comes to Kabul just a few days after their withdrawal and, by agreement with the new government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, starts filming one of the highest Taliban officials – the Commander of the Air Force Mawlawi Mansour, and one troop soldier, a mujahid, Lieutenant M. J. Mukhtar. The rules of the filmmaking process are explicitly restricted, and we learn about them from the filmmaker at the film’s very beginning: The focus can be on the Taliban point of view only, and the film is to be strictly controlled by the Taliban at every stage of its creation.

Although the entourage is distrustful and hostile towards the filmmakers, generally, the Taliban officials seem to be pleased to present their perspective to the world. They share their individual stories, their views on the subjugation of women, their humanistic approach to employees and women begging for money on the streets, and the everyday fight with the «insurgents» – its planning and execution. They present a polished picture of their struggle, bravery, and cleverness in taking over the multiple assets the US Army left behind, from a fully equipped gym through stockpiles of medicines to multiple fighting planes and choppers of various kinds. Mujahedeen wear uniforms left by the US army, shoot from the US machine guns (comparing them to Kalashnikovs), and conduct US-army-style street exercises in the middle of the night. They form a tight brotherhood based on direct acquaintance and fighting experiences as they come from the mountains, where for years they were hiding in small groups in tiny caves with one gun, no light, and one blanket: «Back then, we never understood American technologies. Now, after living inside the CIA base and seeing the resources they have, I swear, if the Taliban would have the same, we will rule the whole world, and our flag will stand tall,» – asserts Lieutenant M.J. Mukhtar. A complex and long process of repairing the warplanes and choppers earlier destroyed and left by Americans is carried on with care and eagerness by engineers and pilots formerly collaborating with the US army, now reluctantly, yet out of necessity, employed by Mawlawi Mansour. The months-long efforts succeed and shine at the military parade the Taliban organise in spectacular style to celebrate the year anniversary of the US army withdrawal, which is closely and eagerly followed by representatives of foreign embassies, among others, of Russia, Iran, and Pakistan.

On the outskirts of these various official proceedings ensues a muted but all-pervading suffering of the people

On the outskirts of these various official proceedings ensues a muted but all-pervading suffering of the people, which is visible on the streets, and in eagerness to serve those in power, as well as in quickly appearing internal struggles and divisions. Taliban – proud warriors praise themselves as victors over empires (Russia and the US), yet they have problems with establishing functioning civilian administration over the country. The medicine left by Americans in the base expires undistributed as apparently there is none to carry on the orders; the accounting and cash flow are faulty and discretionary; a lack of qualified personnel necessitates taking action by the highest officials on the ground. Their forte is fighting. The problems are usually solved by the use of pure force and violence, by «disappearing from the earth,» with brutal, swift, and uncompromising accuracy. The same approach is directed towards establishing the Taliban’s unchallenged authority over the country’s whole territory. Mawlawi Mansour devises ambitious plans to overpower opponents currently hidden in neighboring Tajikistan and doesn’t stop himself from direct threats while talking to the Tajikistani Minister of Defense. His far-reaching, ambitious vision is guileless and steadfast, accepting no alternatives to the Taliban way of life.

Hollywoodgate Ibrahim Nash'at
Hollywoodgate, a film by Ibrahim Nash’at

Frame of reference

The filmmaker’s initial, explicit statement of circumstances of the creative process and the final, more elusive, and metaphorical conclusion form a postmodernist frame of reference for the direct flow of images the Taliban want us to see throughout the film. It casts another level of meaning, which points to an individual viewer’s sensitivity, knowledge, and a sense of humanistic values that deconstruct the pictures’ bare violence (material and symbolic). Hollywoodgate transcends the visible reality and the warlords’ political discourse as a protest and the warning against multiple centres drifting toward war and bloody conflict in contemporary world. It moves and shakes a sense of security, leaving a dire thought that we see people we will, unfortunately, hear about in the future.

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Aleksandra Biernacka
Aleksandra Biernacka
Anthropologist and sociologist of culture. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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