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Film Review: ‘The Network’

The power of television to reflect and effect change in a society during an epochal period of transition is vividly examined in “The Network,” Eva Orner’s illuminating documentary about the founding and influence of Tolo TV, the first independent television station to operate in Afghanistan. As NATO military disengagement from the country continues apace, and many international observers anxiously wait to see what happens next in the region, the pic is quite timely, and may even prove commercial. A canny distrib might try to tie in its publicity campaign with cable-news reports and op-ed essays.

With Mark Rivett’s pulsating score enhancing the fleet narrative, “Network” notes that during the five years of Taliban control, a state-run radio station was Afghanistan’s only true mass medium — and that public executions often served as the only form of mass entertainment.

But shortly after the Taliban was toppled in late 2001, Saad Mohseni, the London-born son of an Afghan diplomat, returned to Afghanistan with his three siblings (brothers Zaid and Jahid, sister Wajma) to participate, profitably, they hoped, in the country’s reconstruction.

Quickly sensing a void to be filled, the Mohsenis established first a popular radio station, then a TV station, despite having no real experience in mass media. By the time Orner, producer of the Oscar-winning doc “Taxi to the Dark Side,” started work on “The Network” in 2011, Saad Mohseni was sufficiently successful to be known as “the Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan.”

Through extensive interviews with managers, producers, on-air hosts and others involved with operations of the Kabul-based Tolo TV, including the blunt-spoken Mohsenis, Orner artfully and engagingly fashions a portrait of television as a form of entertainment and an agent of change.

One executive recalls that when a female singer briefly uncovered her head during an early episode of the “Afghan Star” talent completion, viewer protests, and death threats, immediately followed. Just a few years later, however, women contestants perform with even more abandon — and no head coverings at all — but complaints are minimal.

To be sure, the picture offered by “The Network” is not entirely rosy. “Eagle 4,” a high-rated police drama that paints two-fisted cops in a heroic light, is openly funded by U.S. government agencies, causing some Tolo TV employees to question it as propaganda. And when a popular travel-show host flies to America to tape a few episodes, two members of his production crew decide it would be safer not to return to Afghanistan.

“The Network” often amuses as it gives the audience a view of producers and programmers more or less inventing a TV operation from scratch. But there is an underlying seriousness at play throughout the pic, as Orner records the courage under fire of news reporters covering urban warfare and suicide bombings.

Saad Mohseni gives ample praise to the expats who have journeyed to Kabul to get Tolo up and running while training staffers. Of this group, German-born personnel executive Andi Wilmers — who initially comes off as an autocratic hard-ass, but gradually reveals a more enlightened and compassionate side — is a scene-stealer.

Drama chief Trudi-Ann Tierney and senior producer Muffy Potter, both Aussies, sound the film’s most melancholy notes, as they contemplate whether they’ve taught the Tolo employees everything they need to know, and if Tolo itself will be allowed to conduct business as usual after they and other foreigners depart Afghanistan.

The Network

(Documentary – Australia-U.K.)

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight), March 14, 2013. Running time: 97 MIN.

An XYZ Film presentation of a Corniche Pictures production in association with Nerdy Girl Films. Produced by Eva Orner. Executive producer, Hani Farsi. Co-producers, Abazar Khayami, Luis Lopez, Darrin Roberts.

Directed, written by Eva Orner. Camera (color), Abazar Khayami; editors, Luis Lopez, Darrin Roberts; music, Mark Rivett; sound, David F. Van Slyke.

With: Saad Mohseni, Zaid Mohseni, Jahid Mohseni, Wajma Mohseni, Trudi-Ann Tierney, Muffy Potter, Mujeeb Arez, Rateb Noori, Andi Wilmers.

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