With "Osama" Afghan director Siddiq Barmak won multiple international awards. Now, in his new film, "Opium War", the director mercilessly yet imaginatively goes about unmasking the horrors of everyday reality in Afghanistan. By Martin Gerner
A film like the depths of the Afghan soul. Filled with the experience of immeasurable pain and yet never at a loss for a good joke. A tragicomedy about the US and international military presence in Afghanistan that is clever enough to wrap up its criticisms in a humorous package. Over wide stretches this works, but not always.
Director Siddiq Barmak was under great pressure to succeed with this film. Following the critically acclaimed "Osama", the international film scene was awaiting a worthy repeat performance from the 46-year-old author. When "Opium War" was awarded the "Golden Marcus Aurelius" for best film at the Rome film festival in late October, at least a bit of the strain lifted from Barmak's shoulders.
Human beings amidst the horrors of war
Viewers will need a few minutes before they are able to immerse themselves in the fictional world of the film. After all, the reality of Afghanistan tugs like a lead weight on the mind of any halfway politically informed cinemagoer.
The story centres on two US soldiers, a white officer and his black aide-de-camp. Together they have just barely survived a helicopter crash. Soon these heroes will become helpless victims. But at the same time the frozen masks the soldiers usually wear suddenly take on more human features. This is Barmak's dream: to show "the human side" of people enmeshed in war and hostile dealings.
And then the grotesque comes into play: women and children fearlessly place themselves in the path of the American soldiers. The soldiers now only use their guns as telescopes. Even the helicopter wreck ends up as the spoils of the resident farming family, who use it as emergency housing.
Fantasy unmasks the dullness of reality
Out of this absurdity grow many strong images. All the fantasising about the impossible has the effect of revealing how dull the reality truly is.
But the reversal of roles is not complete. The Afghan family, which lives underneath a Soviet tank in a hole in the ground, remains on the dark side of life. The harvest from their opium field is not enough to subsist on.
Because of his debts, the father is forced to marry off his daughter to armed militiamen who suddenly appear out of nowhere in their green burkas. Are they Taliban or Al Qaida fighters? "They could also very well be Mujaheddin or simply everyday criminals", Barmak explains, alluding to the chaos that actually prevails in the country, where there is no such thing as certainty.
The armed men in burkas vanish just as fast as they came. Here as elsewhere, the director gives us only hints. This has a fragmenting effect, leaving many riddles unanswered.
Has man failed as a species?
The comedy takes a time-out when both the US officer and the old Afghan begin to ponder the apocalypse and a 'global Armageddon'. "As humans we have proven ourselves incapable of administering this planet", one of them philosophises. "Why is God?", asks the other.
This is a dark prophecy. If we are to believe Barmak, the film faithfully evokes the mood in present-day Afghanistan. At the same time, it reflects decades of deprivation and dashed hopes. After all, the old man in the film knows that: "The Americans will leave eventually, just like the Russians."
"Opium War" leaves the viewer with a feeling of helplessness. As if he himself were travelling through the contradictory reality of today's Afghanistan. There seems to be no escape from the country's plethora of problems. And all of the suffering here is man-made.
The only thing promising some relief from the catastrophe is opium. The foundering American heroes as well as the Afghan farmers take turns benumbing themselves with this drug. Suffocating the pain – an understandable weakness in the face of so much misery.
The child in the ballot box
"Is this doomsday?", asks an Afghan woman when a helicopter threatens to carry off her house. Donkeys come over the mountains bearing huge ballot boxes on their backs. Men in suits and black sunglasses, embodying the Kabul mafia, appear as heralds of the new democracy. But the act of free voting, just like everything else, functions anything but smoothly. In the dust a pregnant woman gives birth to her child. Instead of ballots, the newborn is laid in the ballot box. A poetic, bitter lament about the inchoate democracy that has been imported into Afghanistan.
Whether or not this rich symbolism will find favour with a large audience remains to be seen. "Opium War" is scheduled for cinematic release in Europe in early 2009.
Barmak has at any rate proven his courage. There are few filmmakers who address their subjects in the head-on manner he has chosen here. After all, there is something to lose. The US government is still the cook in Afghanistan. All others are at best waiters.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor