The world’s attention has shifted to the war in Ukraine, but two major new documentaries aim to shine a new light on Afghanistan and the people left behind by the rapid US withdrawal last year.
National Geographic’s ‘Retrograde’ follows an Afghan general who unsuccessfully tried to stem the Taliban’s advance in 2021, while Netflix’s ‘In Her Hands’ tells the story of the country’s youngest female mayor, who had to flee when the Islamists took over.
“We forgot that story – when was the last time we discussed the war in Afghanistan or read about it? said “Retrograde” director Matthew Heineman.
“Obviously there’s still some media coverage, but…not many people are talking about this country we left behind.”
Zarifa Ghafari, the former mayor highlighted by “In Her Hands”, told AFP that under the Taliban, Afghanistan was “the only country in the world today where a woman can sell her body, her kids, anything else, but can’t go to school.”
But at international political meetings, “Afghanistan is out of these discussions.”
Both films begin in the months before the American withdrawal, as their subjects attempt to build a safer and more equal future for their country.
Both films end with their central characters forced to watch from abroad as the Taliban quickly erase all of their work.
“Retrograde” began as a documentary with rare inside access to US Special Forces.
In an early scene, American troops have to destroy – or demote – their equipment and unnecessarily fire off the excess ammunition their Afghan allies badly needed.
After the Americans left their base in Helmand, Afghan General Sami Sadat agreed to let Heineman’s cameras stay and follow him, as he took charge of the ultimately doomed effort to push back the advances. of the Taliban.
In one scene, Sadat – stubbornly determined to rally his men to keep fighting as the situation around them crumbles – berates his aide for bringing persistent reports to his war office that nearby Afghan troops have shot down their weapons.
“Every neon sign said ‘stop, give up, it’s over,’ and he had this blind faith that maybe, just maybe, if he held on to Lashkar Gah or Helmand, they could fend off the Taliban,” Heineman recalled. .
Sadat eventually had to flee, and the filmmakers once again shifted their focus to desperate scenes at Kabul airport as Afghans fought for seats on the last American planes.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever seen in my career,” added Heineman, who was nominated for an Oscar for “Cartel Land” in 2015.
“Discussions around wars in public policy and foreign policy, we often talk about it and discuss it without the human element,” the director said.
“One of the things I’ve tried to do throughout my career is to take these large, amorphous subjects and put a human face to them.”
– ‘Murder’ –
Former mayor Ghafari had survived assassination attempts and watched her father shot dead by the Taliban before she too left Afghanistan as Islamists moved there.
“Speaking of this moment, I still can’t stop crying…it’s something that I really never wanted to do,” said Ghafari, who has drawn the ire of critics. Taliban by campaigning for girls’ education after being appointed mayor of Maidan. 24 year old Shahr.
“I had personal responsibilities, especially after my father was murdered…to help protect my family.”
The directors of “In Her Hands”, which counts Hillary Clinton among its executive producers, returned to Afghanistan and filmed Massoum, Ghafari’s former driver, now unemployed and living under the Taliban.
In disturbing scenes, he is seen bonding with the same fighters who once attacked the car he was driving Ghafari in.
“Massoum’s story is the story of the whole crisis in Afghanistan…why people feel betrayed,” Ghafari said.
– ‘Share their pain’ –
Although the conflicts in Afghanistan and Ukraine are very different in nature, the two films offer a cautionary tale of what can happen once the West turns away.
“Obviously this has happened throughout history and will continue to happen long into the future. So what can we learn from this experience?” said Heineman.
Ghafari said: “Whatever is happening in Ukraine and has happened in Ukraine, it’s the same thing we’ve been experiencing for 60 years.
“The same thing over and over again. So we share their pain.”