‘The Land of the Enlightened’: Sundance Review

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
Gorgeous to look at, but difficult to decipher.

Pieter-Jan De Pue’s documentary won a World Cinema special jury award for best cinematography at the festival.

Afghanistan’s legacy of invasion, war and internecine conflict is imaginatively examined in The Land of the Enlightened, a hybrid documentary that strives for a dreamlike reality to convey the fundamental divergence in worldviews between the nation’s current occupiers and the ethnic groups that have inhabited the region for millennia. Shot in striking Super 16mm, the film should travel well on the international festival circuit (next stop Rotterdam) and appears suitable for broadcast and VOD formats, where it could appeal to viewers with a strong interest in the region.

Combining narrative and non-fiction techniques, the documentary’s initial scenes present the first of many spectacular panoramas of Afghanistan’s dramatic landscapes, featuring fertile valleys, dusty steppes and the snowy Hindu Kush and Pamir mountain peaks. A male voiceover describes the mythical origins of the Afghan people and their nation, setting an allegorical tone for the film, which eventually introduces young Gholam, who leads a gang of armed kids living in the highlands and directs their various scavenging and trading activities.

Another storyline involves a forward operating base defended by American and Afghan soldiers attempting to neutralize Taliban advances on the periphery of the zone controlled by coalition forces. Without identifying the personnel or their specific mission, De Pue uses a conventional documentary approach to demonstrate their role both defending and pacifying villages throughout the surrounding countryside as international troops prepare to withdraw from the country.

Meanwhile, Gholam and his gang launch frequent forays to harvest scrap metal and abandoned munitions, which they sell to a junk dealer to support their group of about 20 children under 16, all surviving entirely without adult influence. They also trade in the semiprecious lapis lazuli gemstone, extracted by another band of kids working mines in the Hindu Kush region. Opium trafficking constitutes the most lucrative activity for Gholam’s group, however, as they trade the dark, sticky drug for cash, ammunition and other necessities.

Although the children all portray themselves in the film, De Pue has scripted improvisational scenarios and dialogue for the kids, providing them with activities that support a fictional storyline involving Gholam’s effort to raise sufficient funds to marry one of his young female comrades and build her a palace in Kabul. Scenes involving the coalition troops, which include a couple of live-fire incidents, are underwhelming in comparison to many other narrative and non-fiction films depicting wartime events in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. 

De Pue, a Belgian photographer and filmmaker with extensive experience traveling throughout the country, shot the pic himself over seven years, using the expansive Super 16mm format to enhance scenics of Afghanistan’s exhilarating topography and capture energetic sequences featuring his young subjects, who appear to be almost constantly in motion.

Combining both mundane and fanciful elements, De Pue constructs a film that’s more impactful than just the sum of its parts. By selecting children to represent Afghanistan’s ancient past and uncertain future, he’s able to avoid the pitfalls of complex geopolitical issues that beset most accounts of the region, yielding a work that’s more akin to a modern fable than a conventional documentary. The downside is that the plotline following the kids’ exploits is so episodic that it remains fairly inconsequential and not particularly coherent from a narrative perspective. Existing in this state of flux, The Land of the Enlightened stands as a singular testament to the contemporary status of Afghanistan.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary)
Production company: Savage Film
Director-director of photography: Pieter-Jan De Pue
Screenwriters: Pieter-Jan De Pue, David Dusa
Producer: Bart Van Langendonck
Editors: Alain Dessauvage, Stijn Deconinck
Music: Denis Clohessy
Sales: UTA

Not rated, 87 minutes

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