Spare, unsentimental and uncompromising, David Edwards’ and Gregory Whitmore’s “Kabul Transit” trains a lens on a spectral range of inhabitants in Afghanistan’s capital in 2003. Most comparable to the recent doc “Iraq in Fragments,” and infinitely more successful, this is a picture of a city in fragments, without intro, commentary or visual aid. A tone of quiet despair hangs over the open-ended film, which should find strong support in sophisticated doc fests and even snare the odd network buyer or two. Chances of linking with more conservative U.S. broadcasters are nil.
Edwards, a tyro filmmaker, anthropologist and expert on Afghanistan at Williams College, and vet filmmaker/editor Whitmore, with Afghan-born producer Maliha Zulfacar, ventured to Kabul in 2003 with the idea of taking in various aspects of Kabul sans pre-set agenda. With Edwards’ somewhat distanced, anthropological manner of filming akin to French doc pioneer Jean Rouch, Whitmore as editor opts to build the film by showing each part of the city, and seldom revisiting it, creating a sort of Cubist effect for the viewer.
Early scene of kite-flyers leaves the impression that this may be a light, human-interest pic, but darker aspects take shape. A NATO airbase is the setting for an officer whose duties become almost comically mundane. An elder insists on giving a young man an amulet as a way of warding off “the evil eye” and helping his car work. Moneychangers work amid dusty conditions in which stacks of bills tower around them, while their biggest concern is counterfeiters. Young women at Kabul U. complain female lib is a distant hope with the current Hamid Karzai government.
More slices of the city come into view, including a police officer who complains he’s being punished for enforcing the law “too well”; a karaoke bar; Canadian troops helping to build a drainage system in a poor, hillside neighborhood; a dedicated French schoolteacher; and a local medicine man who discusses why Afghan men seldom live past 60.
Such an approach may seem downright revolutionary to some doc fans, but the pic’s style is much in accord with the norm for current Euro and Asian documaking, where polemics takes a back seat if it has a place at all. Lensing under arduous conditions is superb, lending the pic a bigscreen presence.