Taliban – Behind the Masks is a television news documentary that gives us a glimpse inside the daily life of a group of Taliban fighters in Eastern Afghanistan. The film was made by Norwegian journalist Pål Refsdal and has been picked up by televisions news around the world. For nine days in October 2009, he was behind the lines with the Taliban, embedded as no other Western filmmaker before him. To capture these intimate and unprecedented images, Refsdal risked his life to embed with Dawran and his fighters in Kunar Province.
In fact, restricting reporters’ access to battlefields is today standard operating procedure. If you are bold enough to try to find a way around those restrictions, you double your risk: to the high-tech forces of many industrialised countries you will be a man on the ground with a camera in your hand, and therefore a potential target. Any doubts about these risks should have been erased by the cockpit video of a U.S. helicopter machine-gunning two Reuters journalists released by Wikileaks in May 2010 – just the most recent of a series of incidents targeting journalists in both the Iraqi and Afghan wars. Meanwhile to insurgent fighters, you will be unknown, and possibly a spy.
Refsdal faced both risks and managed to come away with an interesting bit of footage and great story to tell. In classic journalistic fashion, Refsdal wants to find out about the Taliban: “Who these people really are. Are the Taliban really the fanatics they are portrayed to be in the media?” Judging from the film, his answer clearly is that they are real people, fighting a real war. Taliban – Behind the Masks makes no pretentions to complicated story-telling but he does manage to show us both sides. We see them fighting – preparing ambushes on U.S. convoys, shooting aging Soviet weapons down a valley, escaping from U.S. attacks; we hear them chatting on the radio, both during and in between battles, and singing odes to war.
The overwhelming sense conveyed is of local men (for they are all men) doing their bit to repel the invader. No heroics here. Refsdal’s lens catches the Taliban Commander Darwan and his men as they shake hands and exchange simple hugs as they disperse to their various positions. No grim determination. Between ambushes, Darwan spends time with his children, or on rockthrowing competitions with his men, or lecturing his men on the justification for fighting, or just eating and chatting on the radio (“like teen-aged girls” Refsdal later tells CNN). No glorification of the struggle. Refsdal talks to a local Taliban judge about settling local disputes and penalizing those who cut down too many trees (Taliban tree-huggers!). And, of course, we see them at prayer.
Refsdal style is straightforward and he is not going to win awards for his writing or analysis. To his credit, he leaves most of the talking to his Taliban hosts, with just enough voice-over to set the scene at key points. This in itself shows remarkable restraint, given the heavy handed voiceovers we are usually treated to in television news. Refsdal should be commended for resisting the newsman’s urge to tell us what we can understand better by simply watching.
CNN, however, could not handle the silence. In a two-part series hosted by Andersen Cooper – Life among US enemies: Embedded with the Taliban (2010) ¹
CNN spliced Refsdal’s footage with Cooper’s interview of Refsdal. Yes, once again the journalist has become the story. It is worth watching as it provides a different angle and some additional information on Refsdal’s time in Afghanistan, some of which could have usefully been included in Behind the Masks (why cut out Dawran’s reaction to the death of his sub-commander?).
It is also worth watching because the whole tenor is skewed differently from Refsdal’s Behind the Masks revealing an unflattering truth about today’s news coverage of the wars we fight. “Some people might see this and think you are trying to humanize this force which is attacking US troops” says Cooper to Refsdal. Refsdal replies in standard fashion that he thinks it is an “important piece of the war to see these people, how they really are”. “Humanize”? Andersen Cooper is not stupid. He knows very well the Taliban are “human”, but he is an experienced war correspondent and he knows that it disturbs the pre-conceptions so dearly held back home to acknowledge the humanity of the Taliban too directly. It is easy to kill demons, at least for the politicians and media who create them for us. It is harder – though clearly not impossible – to get us to kill people with families and friends, even if they are on the other side.
For a hundred years, through war after war, journalism, literature and film have repeatedly reached the same conclusion: our declared enemies fight – or don’t, as the case may be – for all kinds of reasons. Just like us. They are neither better, nor worse. They are just on the other side. That lesson is important to repeat, primarily because we are constantly told the opposite, especially those audiences of the main television news outlets, who see exclusively embedded video footage of combat couched in home-front rhetoric about “our troops”.
The significance of the little glimpse of the other side that Refsdal has afforded us should not be underestimated. Nor should it be exaggerated. The ‘embed’ – whether with the U.S. military or the Talidan – is combat infotainment: it plays to our fascination with violence. It titillates. At best, it can provide some flash of insight. But it is barely news coverage of a war. Compare Refsdal’s piece – or most embedded reports from NATO forces – with Barbara Plett’s Meeting the Pakistan Taliban (2008)²
Plett’s is easily among the best short documentaries on the Taliban, albeit on the other side of the border. Her piece reminds us how rare is the television coverage that can provide both insight and perspective at the same time. For journalists, the embed is above all about access. Refsdal succeeded where others failed no doubt because his previous experience in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets taught him how to ask. But the practice of embedding reporters means that Refsdal and his kind – those with the courage and sensibility to know how to talk to people at war – are a vanishing breed.
1 See http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WoRLD/ asiapcf/12/10/taliban.refsdal.inside.look/index. html
2 See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/ newsnight/8190471.stm