'Angels Are Made of Light': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
Elegant, if a bit too reverent.

In his latest documentary, James Longley ('Iraq in Fragments') follows the goings-on in and around a school in Kabul, Afghanistan.

It's been over a decade since filmmaker James Longley released his Oscar-nominated documentary Iraq in Fragments (2006). For many years between then and now, he spent his time in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the area in and around the Daqiqi Balkhi School. There he observed classes and followed several of the school's students and faculty, all of whom were adjusting to life in the wake of Taliban terror and American military activity.

The resulting feature, Angels Are Made of Light, is a luxuriant-to-a-fault portrait of a city that, if no longer regularly under siege, still bears very evident marks of recent occupation and violence. Buildings are crumbling, fetid puddles of water dot the muddy streets, makeshift structures abound. But the key image is the recurring one of an American surveillance balloon, hanging in the sky like the Battersea Power Station pig from the cover of the Pink Floyd album Animals, though its purpose is in no way playful. Longley nonetheless treats this blimp-shaped eye in the sky as an aesthetic object — a beautiful thing to be feared in part, yet mostly tolerated and always gazed upon with awe.

It's amazing what the human body and mind will accept, especially when under perpetual scrutiny and threat. You start to see the poetry in dilapidation, which perhaps goes a way toward illuminating the meaning behind the film's opening shot of dust particles dancing in a sunbeam coming through a hole in the ceiling of a bombed-out mosque. There is splendor to be found in scars, though the question here is whether all the visual grandeur (Longley is his own cinematographer and editor) is distracting from a deeper reckoning with a shattered place and people?

The main subjects are a group of boys — brothers Sohrab, Rostam and Yaldash — who often seem caught in a kind of limbo. Will their continued studies help them rise above the ruination all around or will they have to pursue other, more practical trades? Yaldash, in particular, is torn between the metal working that provides him a basic living and the books that expand his mind. We learn much about the boys' yearnings through voiceover that Longley culled from long-form interviews. These inner ruminations often act as poetic counterpoint to images of the boys going about their daily routine, and the film soon expands its scope to include other subjects who are tangential to Sohrab, Rostam and Yaldash's lives, yet still exist within a larger, inextricably connected community.

Another boy, Nabiullah, works at his father's food stand, and is central to one of the film's tensest scenes as he argues with a customer who may have intentionally underpaid him for an order. Several teachers at the school muse on the complex history that has brought Kabul to its current brink — British and Soviet occupation, civil war, terrorism. Archival footage of Kabul in its bustling heyday often plays in tandem with these reflections, and some of the doc's most pointed moments occur when Longley smash-cuts from, say, an old image of a city-center intersection to a new one of the same locale in a much more decrepit state. The filmmaker even manages to capture some history in the making, recording several of his subjects' reactions to the tumultuous 2014 presidential election in which the Hamid Karzai government transferred power (for the first time fully democratically) to Ashraf Ghani.

Longley has stated that he made Angels Are Made of Light to give viewers "the opportunity to think about Afghanistan from an interior, civilian perspective." At its best, which is often enough, the film does provide that sort of intimate and evocative insight into a culture too often vilified due to Western ignorance. At others, the gentle exquisiteness with which Longley approaches even the most unappealing sights and sounds feels like an evasion of something more troubling, and potentially more profound.

Production companies: Daylight Factory, Final Cut For Real, Louverture Films, Piraya Film
Director: James Longley
Executive producers: Danny Glover, Anatoly Savin, Jeff Sanderson, Lara Sanderson, Basil Shadid
Producers: James Longley, Joslyn Barnes, Signe Byrge Sorensen, Torstein Grude
Cinematography: James Longley
Editing: Janus Billeskov Jansen, Waltteri Vanhanen, James Longley
Original score: John Erik Kaada
Sound: Henrik Garnov, Thomas Arent, Jamshid Amiry, Nasim Aalemi, Nasim Ansari, Saboor Arghandiwal
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
U.S. sales: ro*co films

117 minutes