Afghanistan set docudrama The Land of the Enlightened is more effective providing an eye-opening glimpse into a culture than a sustained narrative. Written and directed by Pieter-Jan De Pue, a Belgium photographer and filmmaker who was reportedly attacked by the Taliban while shooting the film, it centres upon a real-life gang of gun-toting Afghani children living in the country’s highlands. Their lives, consisting of hunting, scavenging and trading, are interrupted by the presence of U.S. soldiers in the region, attempting to eliminate Taliban activity.
The portion of the drama focused on the children is when the film is at its most compelling. It’s utterly entrancing to watch these pre-pubescent haggle with adults over the price of their opium or digging out Soviet landmines for the explosives within. Wisely the movie skirts past many opportunities to fictionalise these children’s lives. Although, De Pue and co-writer David Dusa scripted a wrap-around story to book-end the film, the kid’s interactions and the way they go about their daily activities feels very naturalistic and authentic.
A soldier, describing the various packs of kid guerrillas, states: “They scare people because they’re so innocent”. It’s unsettling and a little disturbing to watch these real-life children handle explosives, weaponry and narcotics in such an unflinching manner. Yet, as evident by the fact that old Soviet landmines play such a key role in the film, the central kids have grown up in a culture where warfare is a part of everyday life and know little else.
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When the film turns its attention to the Americans in the region, it loses momentum. The scenes of the soldiers lazing around in between combat captures nicely the mundanity of war, recalling Sam Mendes’ gulf-war drama Jarhead but with a greater verisimilitude. However, whereas the children are constantly in motion, the American adults are often static waiting for action, which tends to drag. Also, the fact that U.S. soldiers’ perspectives of war (The Hurt Locker, 13 Hours, Black Hawk Down, Redacted) dominate media, as opposed to those of the Afghani child guerrillas’, makes this section of the drama less engaging, showing little we haven’t seen in cinema of recent memory.
Also, the moments where the film attempts to be a more meditative documentary, (see this year’s Behemoth) on America’s war with Afghanistan are generally unsuccessful. The delivery of the poetic narration aims for an allegorical tone but comes across more as dreary and monotonous. Meanwhile, the words themselves are, at times, quite on the nose. When the narrator states: “Army after army have blundered God’s Garden”, its information that is better suggested by the Soviet landmines shown later in the film than explicitly mentioned. Overall, these flashes where Land of the Enlightened tries to transcend its real-world story clash jarringly with its predominately realist tone.
Due to its structural flaws and its non-fictional elements, De Pue’s drama isn’t going to connect with a mainstream audience or anyone expecting a typical war film. However, it will engage those interested in the daily-lives of people living in radically different environments.
The Land of the Enlightened is in cinemas from Friday the 11th of November.
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