Life strives to grow, and flourish, amid catastrophic ruins in “Angels Are Made of Light,” James Longley’s stirring and gorgeous documentary about young students and teachers trying to maintain hope in Kabul. As with his prior “Iraq in Fragments,” the director offers a multitude of despairing perspectives on this war-torn milieu, where poverty and war are constant impediments to happiness and progress. Driven by powerful confessional narration from various sources, the film should strike a resonant chord following its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival.
While criticism of America’s military presence in Afghanistan is intermittently heard in conversation and on radio here, Longley’s approach is largely apolitical, insofar as his main focus is the day-to-day experience — and emotional and psychological state — of his pre-teen voices, all of whom attend the Daqiqi Balkhi School. Cheery Sohrab’s love of books and ambition to be at the top of his class are echoed by his younger brother, Yaldash, who wants to learn English and work with computers rather than toiling away at the tin shop job forced upon him by his father. Their oldest brother, Rostam, on the other hand, is undecided about continuing his studies, and increasingly drawn to follow in his dad’s footsteps as a mechanic.
These kids — as well as classmate Nabiullah, who helps out at his father’s food stand — express themselves in voiceover narration tied to the nonfiction action set in and around their bustling, ramshackle school, where an adolescent din is so overwhelming that everyone seems thrilled to eventually move into a modern new building (donated by Americans) where they can hear themselves think.
Longley mostly ignores Kabul’s schoolgirls — presumably because he wasn’t granted access to them — but he captures plenty of Quran lessons; religion is the prime area of study for developing minds in the nation. Despite such piety, however, earthly anguish runs rampant. A lack of money, resources and opportunities routinely threatens to derail the modest dreams of peace, stability and intellectual stimulation to which these students cling. In their commentary, Sohrab and Yaldash articulate a staunch desire to better themselves through education, even as the former laments both the language barriers that isolate Afghanistan’s many tribes, and the fact that he knows nothing about anything that predates his own birth.
That lack of historical context is filled in by teacher Nik and cleaning woman Rogul, whose memories of Afghanistan’s tumultuous 20th-century past are augmented by grainy archival newsreel footage; together, these provide a framework for the nation’s contemporary circumstances. Yet, were it not for a mention of an election to replace President Hamid Karzai, the 2011-14 timeframe of “Angels Are Made of Light” wouldn’t be discernible. Nonetheless, a minor lack of clarity — also created by a sometimes confusing mix of speakers — is in keeping with Longley’s intimate on-the-ground depiction of this conflict-ravaged place, where the streets are slick with mud or covered in snow, populated by men wheeling animal heads in wheelbarrows, and crowded by pro-mujahideen demonstrators.
Through its spoken words, its sorrowful and understated score (by John Erik Kaada) and its quietly devastating snapshots of people just trying to get by, all amid a pervasive sense of violence, “Angels Are Made of Light” serves as a lament for a prosperous past that can’t be reclaimed, a volatile present that affords few prospects for joy or success, and a future that’s terrifyingly uncertain. No matter its title, there are no heaven-sent saviors to be found here — only despondent children struggling, with the aid of a few noble adults, to take flight.