Throughout 20 years of Western occupation, Afghanistan made many appearances in Hollywood. But whether it was in blockbusters like Iron Man, sitcoms like The United States of Al, or Netflix films like War Machine, none of the depictions ventured beyond the standard tropes of a white Westerner coming to save Afghans from deserts and derelict cities that look more like Agrabah than urban centres home to industry, art and history.
The announcement that Jake Gyllenhaal would star in The Interpreter, an upcoming Guy Ritchie directed film about a US soldier who returns to Afghanistan after his tour of duty to rescue the Afghan interpreter who had saved his own life previously, led to derision online, as did the reveal for a Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum-led “Afghanistan evacuation thriller” about three ex-special forces members returning to Afghanistan to rescue “families and allies left behind.”
People pointed out that these were more examples of white saviours coming to deliver brown people from a war-torn place. “America wants a feel-good movie about saving the brown man from the savages,” Ali Baluch, an Afghan American producer and director, said from California. To Afghans, footage of young men clinging in desperation to US military planes in chaotic scenes at Kabul’s airport was symbolic of the dreadful handling of the Western evacuation of Afghans and foreigners from a Taliban-led Afghanistan.
“People are very aware of the disaster that America created,” Baluch said of what has befallen Afghanistan since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. This awareness, he said, is why the studio behind Ritchie’s film is planning to start principal photography in January.
“It’s a catchy sell, ‘one man travels all the way back to Afghanistan to rescue his friend’,” Baluch said.
Frustrations over problematic depictions of Afghanistan are further compounded by the fact that new films are being rushed into production as hundreds of Afghans continue to work to get people out of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, which they say came to power due to the actions of the last two US administrations.
“We all know people who spent countless days and weeks filling out visa forms and trying to get charter flights, the real heroes are the Afghans who spent hours and hours learning immigration law overnight,” Baluch continued.
He said the reality was that the evacuations were in large part about “Afghans helping other Afghans”, but that, the stories Gyllenhaal, Hardy and Tatum were setting out to tell are ones that “washes America’s hands” of responsibility for what has befallen the nation since August.
Long before the Taliban’s takeover, Afghanistan’s own film industry was struggling to hold its own against Western-funded and created projects that often relied on Afghan crews and actors, but still failed to convey the complexities of the nation itself.
“The filmmakers who did have some talent, were put to work in service of embassies and NGOs, rather than being given a chance to really hone their own skills,” said Sahraa Karimi, a noted Afghan filmmaker who headed the Afghan Film Directorate in the final years of the Western-backed government. This, said Karimi, created a system where the narratives around Afghanistan were almost entirely dictated from the outside.
“The actual stories of the people were the sacrifices of the propaganda and sensationalist headlines.”
Rather than creating a space like post-war Italy, where the neorealist movement allowed auteurs to shoot on the streets with mostly untrained actors in order to tell the stories of a society struggling to rebuild itself amid poverty and destruction, Karimi said the 20 years of Western intervention saw little investment in Afghan cultural production.
“Instead of helping Afghan cinema, they hurt it.”
This is despite the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s, Afghanistan was home to a small, but productive film industry that created everything from historical epics to cultural and historical documentaries and communist-mandated propaganda films. At the time, most of these filmmakers were operating on bare-bones budgets and working with small rag-tag teams of actors. But after 2001, film became an afterthought, both for the government in Kabul and the Western embassies who poured millions into questionable and mismanaged projects, said Karimi.
By busying talented filmmakers with projects, contract work and outside productions, Karimi said Western filmmakers created a space where they dictated the narrative around a country of more than 30 million people and Afghans themselves just became crew members on productions ostensibly about their country.
“Any kind of independent and real narrative about Afghanistan from Afghan filmmakers would have destroyed theirs, and that’s not good for their agenda,” Karimi told VICE World News.
Maytha Alhassen, an academic and TV writer who has written extensively on Hollywood’s depiction of Muslims, said the incoming films starring Gyllenhaal, Hardy and Tatum do little more than reduce entire regions of the world into simple tropes.
“We are mapped as a geography of violence,” Alhassen said of countries as geographically, culturally and ethnically different from one another as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Alhassen said whether the depiction of these places is mediated through the news or entertainment, the audience almost always ends up with a story wherein the “the Western military force is seen as the hero” in these countries.
This framing of the foreign military as a force of good, said Alhassen, has led to a thinking where “travesty equals a tally of how many Americans have died” and a system where the world knows exactly how many foreign soldiers have died in Afghanistan but the number of Afghans killed is still largely an estimate. The United Nations only began documenting civilian casualties in the country in 2009.
The 20 years of Western occupation has been filled with reports of abuses and killings of civilians at the hands of foreign forces, with the most notable case seeing a US Army sniper kill 16 villagers in the middle of the night in Kandahar province. Within hours of the 2012 killings being reported, the world knew the name of the US soldier, Robert Bales, that he suffered from PTSD and that his wife had blogged about their financial problems. Earlier this year, there were campaigns to get Donald Trump, the US President who signed the 2020 peace deal with the Taliban, to issue the “warrior” Bales a presidential pardon on his way out of office.
Almost a decade later Bales’ name is still in the news, but few people can name the victims of his killing spree or recount the details of their lives prior to their murders.
The media’s handling of the aftermath of Bales’ massacre of Kandahari villagers, including women and children, was straight out of the Hollywood playbook. Baluch, the Afghan American producer, said stories of foreign wars often veer into territory similar to the response to Bales’ spree.
“These stories are always about the soldiers’ narrative," he said. "About white soldiers suffering from PTSD and their wives at home worrying.”
He gave the 2009 film Brothers, which Gyllenhaal starred in as the brother of a US soldier who was wrongfully presumed dead and ended up suffering from PTSD, as an example. The Jim Sheridan-directed film, also starring Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire, focused almost entirely on the home lives of a US military family with Afghanistan only factoring in a few short scenes.
Baluch said The Interpreter, the upcoming Guy Ritchie project, and Brothers are part of a long list of problematic roles Gyllenhaal has taken on, including the 2010 flop Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which Baluch called “Orientalist trash,” and 2005’s Jarhead, about a US Marine in Iraq.
“If you really look at Jake Gyllenhaal’s career, he’s the Republican narrative, #BlueLivesMatter personified.”
Alhassen said casting Gyllenhaal as a selfless US soldier may be a way of mitigating any guilt people in the West may feel for how their presence in countries like Afghanistan was handled.
“Millions of people faced trauma on our hands, and the way to mitigate that is through stories like this, stories that say, ‘well, some of us are good’,” Alhassen said. Representatives for Gyllenhaal did not respond to requests for comment.
This need to gloss over accountability with a Hollywood ending is especially pressing in Afghanistan, where US, British and Australian forces have all been accused of killings, night raids, drone strikes, disappearances and abuse of civilians throughout the 20 years of occupation.
The tendency of casting the white man as a heroic figure makes it easier to move on from the allegations of war crimes and other abuses by Western forces, Alhassen said, “Once we’ve made a mess and retreated, we don’t have to be held to account anymore.”
Ali M Latifi is an Afghan-American journalist currently based in Doha. Follow him on Twitter here.