‘Tell Spring Not to Come This Year’: Berlin Review

War is hell, especially when it’s the real thing

Afghanistan-set documentary sheds light on the local army’s fight against the Taliban

For the majority of westerners, the War in Afghanistan came to a close in 2013 with the withdrawal of troops and the transfer of security duties from NATO to local forces. But for the majority of Afghans, the battle against the Taliban still very much wages on, as evidenced in the harrowing you-are-there combat documentary Tell Spring Not to Come This Year.

Tracking an Afghan National Army squad fighting insurgent forces in the southwestern province of Helmand, this co-directed feature by Saeed Taji Farouky and Michael McEvoy offers an extremely rare look at life on the firing line for the war-torn nation’s indigenous soldiers. Immersive and at times upsetting, yet vital to anyone interested in the aftermath of a conflict that began back in 2001 (if not back in 1978), this Berlin Panorama premiere should find additional fest play, as well as VOD and public TV slots, in nations belonging to the former U.S. coalition.

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Imbedding themselves with the 3rd Brigade of the ANA’s Heavy Weapons Company, and focusing primarily on two characters – the rookie private, Sunnatullah, and his hardened commander, Jalaluddin – filmmakers Farouky (who shot the footage) and McEvoy (who recorded sound) cover all aspects of army life, from the monotonous labor to downtime in the barracks to battle scenes where the bullets fly and the casualties are frighteningly real.

While the movie starts off rather mildly and almost like an Afghan episode of Cops, with Jalaluddin’s men kicking down doors or interrogating farmers about their bountiful opium crops (“They belong to my cousin!” one of them answers), things take a turn for the worse when enemy forces begin encroaching on their territory.

It’s then that Spring – whose title refers to the season in which the Taliban wage war – heads to some rare and highly unsettling places, Farouky’s camera accompanying the troops as shots ring out in all directions and men fall to the ground, wounded or dead. A first skirmish near the 3rd Brigade’s home base ends without major casualties, but a second one in the town of Sangin turns into a desperate standoff where several soldiers are hit and help takes too long to arrive.

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Commander Jalaluddin is absent from these scenes, having sent his squad off with the best advice he can muster up: “When you’re scared, then death is near.” But it’s clear from their dazed and weary faces that these men are constantly frightened for their lives, and not necessarily experienced enough to deal with enemies who have been fighting the same battle for decades, with much more seemingly at stake. For the young troopers of the ANA, war means a steady job (though not always a steady paycheck, as one soldier complains). For the unseen members of the Taliban, it’s a way of life.

While Spring concludes with a bang, it’s far from a pleasant one, and the end titles list the names of over two dozen soldiers killed in action during the production. The fact that Farouky and McEvoy survived to tell their tale is a relief, though not at all comforting given the surrounding bloodshed – which, considering the political climate in Afghanistan, does not look to end anytime soon. If anything, the filmmakers deserve credit for refusing to shy away from such realities, while bringing attention to a conflict that most of the world has forgotten. They have gone where few directors dare to venture.

Production companies: Tourist with a Typewriter, Ponda Films, NHK Cosmomedia Europe
Directors: Saeed Taji Farouky, Michael McEvoy
Producers: Saeed Taji Farouky, Michael McEvoy, Elizabeth C. Jones
Executive producers: Scott Brown, Robert Elliott, David Kennedy, Nick Quested
Director of photography: Saeed Taji Farouky
Editor: Gareth Keogh
Composer: Joe Lewis
Sales agent: Sabatour

No rating, 87 minutes