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
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