TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) - The first thing you notice about the director of the bold documentary ‘Alone among the Taliban’ is his staggering honesty; a trait that does quite well with his choice of occupation. Being a documentary filmmaker demands a certain amount of honesty coupled with courage and a critical as well as creative mind, all of which Mohsen Eslamzadeh seems to have in spades.
‘Alone among the Taliban’ was definitely a bold move on the part of a filmmaker new to documentary filmmaking, and who had spent 15 long, terrifying days among a militant group armed to the teeth, with whom Iran carries a dark history after the 1998 attack on the Iranian consulate in Mazar Sharif and the subsequent execution of 11 Iranian diplomats.
“For nearly two decades, we have seen films depicting the opposing side to the Taliban, but I wanted to show why is that the Taliban has maintained its presence in Afghanistan for such a long time? I believe that the Taliban have popular support,” Eslamzadeh explained.
It is interesting that the narrative kicks off with a close-up shot of a white US spy balloon shimmering blindingly in the blue expanse of sky some 2,000 feet above. Eslamzadeh’s voice breaks through the images, “it has become part of the Afghanistan’s landscape”, and the camera shifts over to the people going about their daily lives under the watchful gaze of the constant aerial surveillance balloon. And the narrative slowly moves toward the main characters, the Taliban militants, with their faces covered in long scarfs and their hands gripped tightly around their rifles. Perhaps, from a certain point of view, the Taliban and the Americans do not make much difference to Afghan citizens, but Eslamzadeh insists that he had attempted to depart from the traditional view of the Taliban in media outlets and instead look at them from a completely different angle.
“I wanted to show that the Taliban in Afghanistan are not Takfiris,” said Eslamzadeh, “more than a dozen countries have for years tried to eradicate them but to no avail. I asked Taliban leaders what they sought to do after fighting for some 40 years and they said they wanted to respect the rights of other ethnic groups.”
But perhaps the director’s desire to offer a neutral perspective on the Taliban had at times approached the borders of sympathetic.
“This wasn’t my intention,” he assures. “I just want the war to end in Afghanistan, and as such I condemn the killing of people by any groups there. I am not trying to depict a benevolent picture of Taliban, I was solely aiming for a different point of view from inside the group as opposed to an outsider perspective.”
The theme of the documentary is controversial enough to nearly eclipse its other important components, namely the form and the content. While Eslamzadeh could be highly praised for his courageous decision to spend half a month in a hostile environment around people whose language he did not speak, one could actually find a number of faults with the overall form of the narrative and the content which could have included more commentary on the differences between the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the necessary backgrounds for certain traditions depicted in the film, but perhaps most importantly, the condition of women living under the control of the Taliban, an issue that became more prominent and urgent after the touching story of Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai who was shot by a Taliban gunman on her school bus in 2012.
But perhaps one could forgive the jumpy scenes and a lack of focus on certain important topics due to the prickling sensation of dread inherent in the whole course of the narration, sometimes broken by a joke or two off-handedly thrown by the covered faces, which the narrator had a hard time to decide how to interpret. The music was also another positive aspect of the documentary, which was a combination of Pashto and Western music. Wherever the content was too cursory to perfectly instill the sense of fear, the music did its job wonderfully.
‘Alone among the Taliban’, a 57-mintue documentary by Mohsen Eslamzadeh, was first screened in the ninth edition of Iran’s International Documentary Film Festival ‘Cinéma Vérité’ from 13-19 Dec. 2015, and won the International Shahid Avini Award for the Best Mid-Length Documentary.