The Land of the Enlightened won a World Cinema special jury award for best cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival.
The history of Afghanistan has been punctuated by a succession of invasions from the era of Genghis Khan right up until the present day. The occupation by American and coalition forces beginning in 2001 has shaped the country in definitive ways, just as the Soviet incursion did in the 1980s, and this legacy of foreign interference is poetically examined in Pieter-Jan De Pue’s The Land of the Enlightened.
Although programmed in the festival’s World Cinema Documentary section, De Pue’s film is more a hybrid of narrative and nonfiction, as well as a running commentary on the ancient legacy of the country. To the degree that the film concerns a specific time period, the documentary segments take place following the Obama administration’s 2014 initiation of troop withdrawals and a spike in recruitment and training of Afghan forces.
Narratively, the film focuses on band of about 20 children under 16 who live in a yurt in the barren mountain highlands. Surviving without adult interference they support themselves by scavenging and selling equipment, munitions and scrap metal abandoned over 30 years of war by Soviet and coalition forces. They also trade in opium, Afghanistan’s non-monetary currency, as well as lapis lazuli, the semiprecious azure-blue gemstone that they extract from mountain mines. Their young leader Gholam dreams of leading his followers to Kabul, where he intends to build a palace for the girl he’s seeking to marry, another member of his makeshift gang.
The documentary portion of the film consists of footage shot at a forward operating base in the mountains where US and Afghan troops are attempting to track and neutralize Taliban insurgents. Although there are a few moderately intense live-fire scenes, most of the material consists of soldiers waiting for the action to resume as they pass the time working out, playing guitar and napping.
An unidentified voiceover narration also threads throughout the doc, as an Afghan male intones passages about the mythological origins of the nation, the history and fate of his people and his view of the future following the departure of US and coalition forces. This monologue is presented while a stunning series of landscape scenes of high mountains, fertile valleys and nighttime starfields appears onscreen.
Shot on Super 16mm film, De Pue’s feature has the effect of creating a somewhat disorienting type of Afghan dreamtime, where present, past and future all occur contemporaneously. The documentary footage of military troops is nothing new and seems best understood thematically, as the American occupiers present their plans for withdrawal to local communities that remain stoically unimpressed. The sequences concerning the gang of children, loosely scripted by De Pue, are the most involving and appear to be improvised around some basic scenarios, but any details on the origins of the group, the absence of adults or the lack of social trappings go completely unexplained. Although the landscape scenics are strikingly beautiful, the voiceover narration provides few clues to the film’s unique perspective.
And perhaps De Pue’s intent is essentially non-narrative – an attempt to provide an impressionistic interpretation of contemporary Afghanistan that in its aggregate of fiction, reality and myth may come closer to characterizing the nation’s current state than any other approach.