The history of Afghanistan is a history of invasions. Everyone from Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to Leonid Brezhnev has knocked on the door, to mixed success. Combined with the nation’s provocative natural resources, from the opium-producing poppy to the deep blue charm of lapis lazuli, this has given the nation something of a mythological reputation in international minds. Genuine concern and orientalist exploitation have flooded into the nation with a striking ambiguity that shines out from both Steve McCurry’s famous “Afghan Girl” and The Land of the Enlightened, an astonishing debut feature from Belgian filmmaker Pieter-Jan de Pue.
Like McCurry before him, de Pue has taken children for his subject. Yet in this case the artwork is much more elaborately framed. The Land of the Enlightened is, for lack of a better term, a “docudrama” of both the current situation in the American-occupied Central Asian nation and its entire history. The film begins with a legend, in which the peoples of the world are assigned their lands by God. Never one to push others aside, the first Afghan arrives last. God, realizing he has run out of territory, gives to the Afghan people the area he was reserving for his own garden. This tale is told in voice over, accompanied by breathtaking images of mountainous Northeastern Afghanistan. It leads right into the “drama” part of the “docudrama,” recurring sequences starring seemingly independent bands of children, traversing the Afghan landscape in search of both survival and fortune.
The kids, mostly boys, are locals who de Pue met in his own travels across the country. They are not actors so much as reenactors, both of their own personal struggles in the waning days of American military presence and of a longer history of rural nomadic life. They raid caravans for opium, slaughter a goat to feed themselves, herd their varied livestock across the plains, mine for lapis lazuli and hunt down the surviving land mines, armored vehicles and ammunition shells that dot the landscape.
Children are so often used in campaigns to drum up Western altruism, positioned as helpless victims. Or, alternatively, the image of a child with a gun is among the most common tropes of sensational terror in international crisis points. “They scare people because they’re so innocent,” one American soldier tells de Pue. The Land of the Enlightened strives to give these kids a place between those two extremes, and in the process allow a more complex history for both the people and land of Afghanistan.
That American soldier, incidentally, is only one of many that appear. De Pue presents them in a way that more closely resembles a traditional documentary. He observes their routine in their mountaintop base, recreating some of the lived-in vibe of Restrepo. He shows them in a meeting with local residents, struggling to turn the locals against the Taliban. This is part of an overall mission to turn over security responsibilities to the Afghan National Army, an institution that American rank and file clearly don’t hold in high respects. De Pue also emphasizes the ridiculous machismo of American militarism with a sequence of soldiers working out, pumping iron to a soundtrack of sexually explicit techno. When they finally leave, and the film returns to a speech by President Obama announcing a draw-down in troops, de Pue accompanies their helicoptering away with a Russian war song from the Soviet invasion days. Whatever their eccentricities, the American occupation force will have come and gone like any other.
And, like the Soviets before them, their most visible contribution to the landscape will be a whole lot of shrapnel. Afghanistan may still be the lord’s garden, but its fruits and flowers are made of steel and iron. The groups of boys that serve as the film’s starring cast pick bombs from the ground as willfully as they do lapis lazuli stones. They rob caravans of opium to exchange for bullets, or simply search for military equipment and debris that has been left behind. In the most memorable sequence in the film, a large crowd of children spreads across a likely former battlefield to hunt down everything from unexploded bombs to enormous artillery shells, all set to a busy allegro movement from a J.S. Bach violin concerto. The pastoral, organized frenzy of the baroque music subtly underlines the metaphor of Afghanistan as a paradise of resources, unsettlingly naturalizing this unholy crop.
Full of striking visual metaphors, breathtaking landscapes and narrative sequences that seem to take place entirely outside of historical time, The Land of the Enlightened is a tremendously assured debut feature. Part of its accomplishment is in its complexity, that de Pue resists the urge to act as a political spokesman and instead weaves history and mythology into a much more specific portrait. In spite of some very pointed moments directed at the American invasion, this is a much broader artistic undertaking that may provoke interpretation and reinterpretation as time marches on and the final US troops helicopter out. At the very least, it will certainly be seen as one of the most accomplished documentary debuts of 2016.