Afghanistan: The Lost Truth

Yassamin Maleknasr

Iran, 2003, 64 min.

I picked up this tape with enthusiasm: Afghanistan: The Lost Truth. A lot of truths about Afghanistan have been lost, covered up or otherwise mislaid recently. During an earlier episode of Bush’s alleged War on Terror (provisionally titled “We Get Bin Laden”, later re-branded), Afghanistan was on our screens all the time. Since then, the country has been ‘liberated’ from the Taliban into the hands of warlords more congenial to Bush, and things have gone quiet on the international media front. So Iranian filmmaker (and distinguished film actor) Yassamin Maleknasr’s film is welcome.

Maleknasr says, “I entered this exotic, mysterious and historic land […] to seek love and life – not aversion and death.” It’s a road movie: she drives around the country interviewing people. She gets some wonderful testimonies; my personal favourite is Siddiq Barmak (director of the fabulous Afghan feature film Osama). He describes the Taliban making a bonfire of 2500 films – in the same stadium where they carried out executions. A resilient man, Barmak is reduced almost to tears at the memory of seeing Tarkovsky’s Solaris going up in flames. Maleknasr asks Barmak to name his favourite film actor and the unexpected reply is Marlon Brando.

There are more gems: the doctor who saw a patient die because the Taliban wouldn’t let male doctors operate on women; the schoolgirl explaining why she doesn’t plan to get married or have children, “I have three brothers: I have suffered enough.”

However, Maleknasr’s laudable aim of filming the hope rather than the suffering doesn’t really pay off: the best sync is about the horrors of the Taliban years, her most arresting images are of bomb damage. A series of contributors say “I hope for peace in the future”, but the effect is a bit too circular for my taste: lots of new faces appear, but the questions and answers are generally the same. No character is followed up, she just drives on to the next. It’s also unnerving that the Afghan poor generally appear as nameless vox pops by the side of the road (or in the worst cases are shot from inside the car), while the professionals are interviewed behind their desks and given full captions. I was disappointed, too, that she rounds up the usual suspects for her GV sequences (donkeys, carpet-weavers, smiling kids, sunsets).

Also disturbing is her tendency to drop in on the tourist attractions of the places she visits, making her film an uncomfortable cross between a tourist board travelogue and a character-based documentary. The film has rewarding and revealing material, but missed opportunities, too.