Having worked as a photographer in Afghanistan for organizations like the Intl. Red Cross, Belgian first-time helmer Pieter-Jan De Pue offers a cinematic take on his observations in “The Land of the Enlightened.” Made over seven years, this docu-fiction hybrid primarily focuses on a group of children who occupy a former Soviet outpost, living as a gang and collecting opium and other valuables from passersby. But while the children, playing versions of themselves, offer an intriguing vantage point on the power vacuum in the war-torn country, the movie as a whole is frustratingly coy and diffuse. The use of enactments mutes the power of the film’s ostensible authenticity, and much of what we see cries out for more context than the director’s (sometimes faux) non-involvement style provides. De Pue’s own 16mm lensing netted him a cinematography prize at Sundance, and further fest play is a given.
The pic opens with two children listening to a radio report on which President Obama is heard talking about an American troop reduction in Afghanistan, a policy that entails an attendant shift in responsibility to Afghan forces. The children live at a former Soviet outpost in the Pamir Mountains, stopping visitors at gunpoint. The group’s leader, Gholam Nasir, has a sense of duty to protect his comrades and to help them earn a living. In an early, graphic sequence, they slaughter a sheep and, after it is cooked, haggle over the parts (“Bastards, I didn’t get any brains”). When a man whose caravan is stuck asks for help, Nasir agrees to assist him in exchange for opium, which he measures in its weight in Kalashnikov bullets. Nasir is hoping to marry a girl whose father is an addict. All the children seem surreally young to be dealing with situations of this gravity, which include transporting weapons from the country’s border.
Although the film takes us to an ancient lapis lazuli mine and shows us kids scrapping tanks for parts (in a montage set to Bach), De Pue also spends time with American troops during the transition period. One of their leaders gives a speech attempting to secure villagers’ assistance in locating Taliban fighters (and, judging from the villagers’ reactions, doesn’t appear to be getting through). We see soldiers both in action and during downtime, exercising or strumming guitar. We’re told that the brass left over from American shooting has become a staple in Afghanistan’s barter economy, where it is traded for batteries, electronics and bread.
While the film’s style — mostly free of title cards and time markers — is presumably intended to enhance immediacy, the material hasn’t been stitched together to provide much exposition or narrative drive; the most startling sights that De Pue captures could easily be watched in isolation from the movie as a while. The mix of documentary and dramatization doesn’t help matters, diminishing the power of the scenes with the children by raising questions about how they were created.
Meanwhile, the attempts to situate the children’s struggle in a more mythic and poetic context, with time-lapse clouds and narration (presumably from the perspective of Nasir, though not in his voice) that discusses the way Afghanistan has been plundered by foreign powers for all of its existence, come across as slightly precious. These devices seem designed to provide the movie with infusion of sentimentality against one of the least sentimental backdrops imaginable.