Monday, October 1, 2012

We Will Hang You Tomorrow: "Kabul 24" (2009)

There have been millions of stories over the past eight years about how 9/11, and the War on Terror, have affected global society. This documentary sheds light on an almost forgotten set of people who were being held captive in Afghanistan when the United States exacted revenge on the terrorist-sympathizing Taliban.

Shelter Now International is a multi-national Christian aid organization who provide food and comfort to those in need. They have a team in Afghanistan, but are told not to preach the Gospel unless asked, since the Taliban have made the attempted conversion of Muslims a crime. On August 23, 2001, eight western members of the organization (Americans Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas, and Germans Margrit Stebner, Katrin Jelinek, Silke Duerrkopf, and Georg Taubmann), and another sixteen Afghans are arrested for supposed indoctrination. What follows is over one hundred days of brutal captivity, constant mental abuse, threats of execution, and the fear of never seeing their families again. Even in the face of American bombings, the eight keep up their faith: praying pacifists who cannot find it in themselves to harm their guards to escape.

A question I had almost right away, and took a while for me to answer it, was: sure, we focus on the eight westerners, but what about the poor Afghans? Do they not count? Yes, they do count, but they are also still in Afghanistan. The few subjects who the film makers are able to talk to have their faces blurred out for fear of reprisal, which is possible since the Taliban is still active all these years later.

The main eight subjects all use their faith in God to get through their ordeal, although each seems to have had their breakdowns and doubts on many occasions. The four prisons they are shuffled around to are squalid, and filled with political Afghan prisoners- one prison for non-believers has 1500 boys in it, and the country's women are treated as less than human. They are not allowed to refer to themselves by name- but as either "wife of..." or "daughter of...". The hostages' capture in late August 2001 was big news until the September 11 attacks, and the Taliban tried to use their presence as human shields, unsuccessfully bartering with the United States and the United Kingdom before bombing commenced on October 7.

Although all eight subjects are interviewed, the film is still rife with suspense. Hostage Taubmann revisits many of the places they were held, showing the camera first hand what happened. This is compelling stuff, as are the tales of the torture and beatings the Afghan citizens had to endure. Some of the captors eventually helped the prisoners, but watching the interviews, I could tell the stress was still there on the faces of everyone involved.

My quibbles with the film are minor, but do keep this from being a perfect story. I would have liked to see more about how these people dealt with ordinary life upon their return. I know some went back to Afghanistan, or wanted to return, but how was their faith strengthened or shaken? The film makers use a very crude but effective animation technique to show some of the scenes (the trial, some prison sequences) that could not possibly be shown, but the narration by James Caviezel is almost non-existent, and I would forget he was there until he started to speak. The musical score is alright, and the editing is very tight. Director Pearson captures the otherworldly-looking Afghanistan countryside very well.

"Kabul 24" isn't "Midnight Express" revisited, but it tells an important chapter in the history of a country that is still in the news even today. The eight hostages should be admired, and so should this film. (* * * *) out of five stars.