Christophe de Ponfilly’s documentary on Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Tajik commander who led troops first against the Russians and then against the Taliban, was filmed during several visits to Afghanistan from 1981 to 1997, though its main portion deals with the latter period, when Massoud was fighting a seemingly futile battle that the world was largely ignoring. Over the years Ponfilly had befriended Massoud and his troops and there’s an intimacy to his portrayal of these warriors which makes the film unique. Ponfilly initially went to Afghanistan because he believed in the people’s struggle, but as the war against Russia was followed by a seemingly endless civil war, his mood became more one of depressed resignation. What is the point of taking pictures anymore, he wonders more than once, when nobody cares what’s happening here? And when an unreliable peace has been achieved and Massoud has been co-opted by a temporary, non-Taliban but very corrupt government in Kabul, he returns to France with a feeling of betrayal.
But that’s just a pause in the battle, and Pontfilly eventually returns, finding things as futile as ever with Massoud and his men preparing an attempt to dislodge the Taliban from a stronghold outside Kabul. The film can be confusing at times because Pontfilly assumes the viewer has a great deal of background knowledge when, in fact, most of us just have bits and pieces. But the quietly charismatic Massoud is a compelling screen presence, a quixotic leader who inspires his men by dint of his personal magnetism. He also comes across as a larger-than-life hero in a country with few such figures, a country which was once the warring ground of superpowers but then abandoned and left to the corrosive forces of unhinged religionists.
Since the film ends in 1997, it’s missing an important postscript: On Sept. 9, 2001, Massoud was murdered by al Qaeda assassins. Two days later we finally entered the war.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Sept. 8, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.