Fellows Friday

A TED Fellow’s documentary offers an intimate glimpse into life in the Afghan Army, post-NATO support

We divide the world into civilians and soldiers. Rarely do we think about the human experience of war — the rhythm and flow of daily life on the front lines. Saeed Taji Farouky’s latest feature documentary, Tell Spring Not to Come This Year, follows a unit of the Afghan National Army during their first year of deployment without NATO support. This intimate film shows the war in Afghanistan from this human perspective, through the eyes of Afghans themselves.

This week, just after the film’s UK premiere at the Sheffield Documentary Festival, Taji Farouky spoke to the TED Blog about his experience of embedding with this band of fighting — and laughing — men.

Why did you want to tell this particular story, at this particular time?

We timed the filming of Tell Spring Not to Come This Year so that we would finish at about the same time that the NATO mission ended. The idea was to show what it will be like for the next several decades with the Afghan National Army fighting their own war, now that the NATO combat mission is over. The unit we filmed with hadn’t been fighting with NATO support for at least a year, so by following their experiences, we have a very good idea of what things will look like without NATO.

The hope was to coincide with Western news saying, “The war is over, our men are back.” That happened in January 2015. Our film came out in February. Right now, as far as most foreign journalists are concerned, the war is over. Because most foreign troops are gone, the news is over. We wanted to say, “The war is not over.” That’s the message we got from the soldiers. The war is over for most foreign troops — but a completely different and probably much harder and longer war has just started.

Afghan Soldiers of the 215 Corps driving back to base through Gereshk town after a routine patrol.

Afghan Soldiers of the 215 Corps drive back to base through Gereshk town after a routine patrol. Photo: Courtesy of Saeed Taji Farouky

How did you choose to work with this particular group of men?

I’d been trying to make a film about Afghanistan for years, but never knew how to approach it. I got an email from my co-director Mike McEvoy, through a mutual friend. He said, “I have an interesting idea for a film. I’m looking for a filmmaker who doesn’t mind being shot at.” That was my introduction.

I knew immediately that it was a very important story. Mike had worked with this unit for nine months as a liaison officer between the British Army and the Afghan Army, serving in the British Army. So he knew these guys very well already, and it meant it would make it a lot easier for us to get our paperwork and approval.

Once we arrived on base, we decided to focus on Jalaluddin, the captain, partly because he’s very active — one of the new hopes for the future of the army, a kind of rising star. I also had a really good rapport with Sunnatullah, the second character in the film, from the very beginning. He’s young and very cocky, but very naive as well. Very sweet, in a way — a mix of trying to be tough, but also idealistic. He has a character that I think represents a lot of things that we see in Afghanistan.

There were people in the unit who said, “Don’t film me, I don’t want to be involved,” and of course we respected that. We were not interested in making reportage; it was more a collaboration. It was understood that we were there to live with them for a year and do whatever they did, and they’d give up a bit of their privacy for us. In return, our promise was we’d tell a story that they know is important to people who don’t understand what life is like in their country.

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Captain Jalaluddin rests during boxing training at Gereshk base where his unit — Heavy Weapons Company — is stationed. Photo: Courtesy of Saeed Taji Farouky

What’s the story arc of the film?

It’s almost impressionistic, in a way. Essentially we filmed this unit’s last year of fighting before NATO pulled out, and it follows a pretty typical cycle of fighting seasons. At the beginning of the film, we see a lot of daily routine, and it’s quite slow and boring and repetitive. But it gives you an idea of what life is like on the front line, where a tiny portion is the shocking, scary, exciting part, and the rest is just living life and trying to get by every day. The film builds with several missions over the course of the year, where we start to understand the difficulties they’re faced with: language, the question of, “who can you trust?,” not having the right equipment, confusion over mission goals and so on.

The film leads up to what, at the time, was the biggest Taliban offensive since the start of the war. They were attacking an area called Sangin. The British Army had lost a lot of men there and spent years trying to secure it, but eventually it fell back into chaos. Near the end of our year, the Taliban attacked the military, and a lot of our guys were sent there. We followed them on what was a pretty disastrous mission. It all comes to a head. You see all the issues coming together, with the added danger of being on the front line, under siege.

Mike was filming this part — he did second camera sometimes, and by this time I was already back in the UK editing. He was in one compound for over 48 hours, under siege. The Taliban breached the walls of his compound at one point. It was a fight the scale of which they hadn’t seen before in that war.

I should mention that, while Mike had been with the British Army, his contract was over and we didn’t touch any weapons while filming. They showed me how to shoot, just in case anything went horribly wrong, but we made it very clear that we were not involved in the war. The unit would ask Mike for advice, but the ethical line we took was that if withholding information would put people at risk, he’d say something. But in a regular meeting, if they asked, “What do you think we should do?” he would have to hedge the answer, and say, “Whatever you think is right,” or “This is not my role any more.” For the unit, it was very strange, because for months, they didn’t absorb that once he turned up with a camera instead of a gun, he wasn’t a soldier any more.

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An Afghan soldier rests after narrowly escaping with his life from 48 hours under siege in the village of Sangin. Photo: Courtesy of Saeed Taji Farouky

How is the situation different for the Afghan Army now, without NATO? What are their unique challenges?

In many ways it’s different, and in many ways it’s exactly the same. British soldiers who’d served in Afghanistan and have seen the film have commented that the Afghan soldiers encounter exactly the same problems that NATO encountered for years. Especially in Helmand, where we were based, there’s no real front line — it’s not a territorial war, and you have no idea who the enemy is. That’s the fundamental issue. Then you have ancillary problems. For example, how much can you trust the police as a secondary national force? Many of them are recruited from the area, so it’s much easier for them to be corrupt and involved in the insurgency or the drug trade.

The scenario is still: you show up somewhere, someone’s shooting at you, you don’t know who it is, you interview a few people, you arrest a few of them. And you have a language issue because many of the Afghan Army officers speak Dari, and they’re in a Pashto area. Do you destroy the drugs and turn those farmers into insurgents, or do you let them farm opium and channel some of that money to the Taliban? In those cases, technology, money and experience don’t help at all, because these are human issues.

The scale, training, equipment and mission are different. NATO’s mission of course changed radically, because it was a mess, but it began as “get al-Qaeda” and then it morphed into “get rid of the Taliban,” as well as “help nation-build.” The Afghan National Army’s mission is much more of a traditional one: keep this area secure, control the country by dominating the landscape. The problem is they’re still fighting the same war that NATO trained them to fight, with old-style, almost World War I tactics — you go into an area, take it over and then say that you control it. But of course you don’t. The Taliban insurgents are fighting a guerrilla war, which is a completely different war.

There also seems to be no end in sight, no point at which they can say, “We’ve succeeded, now we can stop.”

They are fighting an ideology, and you can’t fight an ideology like a traditional war. Unless you had an enormous military that wasn’t afraid to impose extreme violence on people, there’s no way you can dominate the country this way. The current strategy is to dominate an area — go in, clear it — and then leave three days later. That’s not a long-term recipe for a stable country.

The irony in Afghanistan now is that if you live in an area totally controlled by the army, it’s pretty safe. And if you live in an area totally controlled by the Taliban, it’s pretty safe. It’s if you live in the middle that you get blown up every day. So if the army shows up and says, “We’re here to stabilize you,” what you see on a short-term basis is a lot more violence and death. So in some parts of the country, living under the Taliban is probably more tenable than the continuing war.

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Private Sunnatullah relaxes on Gereshk base where his unit — Heavy Weapons Company — is based. Photo: Courtesy of Saeed Taji Farouky

Had you been to Afghanistan before? How much did you already know about the people and the culture and the situation on the ground going in?

No, I’d never been there before. I didn’t know a huge amount about it. But for context, most of my work is based in the Arab world. I didn’t know the language, Dari, although it’s similar enough to Arabic that I picked it up and could have basic conversations by the end of the year. It’s funny. I don’t like to make sweeping generalizations about cultures, but when you show up in an Arab country, generally the people are very interested in talking to you as a visitor. In Afghanistan, that’s not the case, and I think it’s because they’ve lived through so many invasions and so much treachery that they don’t open up very easily. That’s very difficult if you’re making a documentary, obviously. It didn’t surprise me, but those are tough working conditions.

So one of the hardest things was getting past the point where people give you very obvious answers, and getting to the human story. The vast majority of documentaries coming out of Afghanistan — as with most war zones — are superficial. We wanted to say, “What if we treat the Afghan soldiers in the same way that Restrepo treats American soldiers?” Why should we not be able to laugh with them, feel sympathy for them, feel their pain? Why not just treat them as ordinary people and not like novelties?

The Nazar family bury their son -- a soldier in the Afghan National Army -- in Baghlan in northeastern Afghanistan.

The Nazar family bury their son — a soldier in the Afghan National Army — in Baghlan in northeastern Afghanistan. Photo: Courtesy of Saeed Taji Farouky

What did the soldiers make of your Palestinian-British background? Do you feel like you were able to bridge the gap quickly?

I have a very specific approach. When I make a film, I’m always very willing to make a fool of myself — I think you have to be. I’m almost always the silly one with the camera. I think the image that documentary filmmakers and photojournalists like to portray — this kind of tough guy thing — doesn’t work when you want people to trust you and work with you. They generally saw me as the silly one, and what I loved about that group of men is that they were very silly too. They liked to laugh a lot. They played jokes on each other, even in the shittiest of situations. So I wasn’t interested in pretending to be tough.

They found it a bit weird that I was filming things they thought were completely unimportant. They are used to being filmed for news and documentaries as propaganda — they have a lot of ads for the army on TV — and I wasn’t interested in any of that. So they’d wonder, why are you filming us getting food, brushing our teeth, or cleaning our shoes? I’d say, “Everyone knows the fighting parts. They understand what it looks like when you’re blowing things up. These are the parts they don’t know. So that’s what they should see.” I think after a year they got what I was doing, and appreciated it.

Some of them spoke some Arabic. And there was a sense of solidarity when I spoke to them. I’m not a practicing Muslim, but I can pray with them, and I can talk to them about Islam. As a Palestinian, a lot of them said to me, “We’re in the same situation as you — we’re also occupied and we’re fighting a war for our survival.” So there was that sense that we were not so different, and I think that’s important. They could sense I would understand the fundamentals they were dealing with.

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Ashuqullah catches his breath in a compound in Yakhchal, after taking cover from insurgent fire. Photo: Courtesy of Saeed Taji Farouky

Having been on the ground, do you see the situation in Afghanistan evolving at any point into something that’s easier? What would have to change to shift the situation?

I’m not an analyst, so this is just based on my opinion and the research I’ve done. I think they have to break away from the image that NATO built their army, because they’re fighting a war that Britain and America and the rest of NATO were fighting — a very traditional war with armies that aren’t so good at nation-building. At some point, they’re going to have to realize (1), “We’re fighting the wrong war,” and (2), “We’re going to have to make political compromises that somehow absorb the Taliban into the political process.” I don’t think there’s any other way of doing it.

In a way, it’s worked in the past. There was a period for a few years where local governors were making informal truces with the Taliban, where they’d say, “If you don’t come in here, we won’t attack you there.” Living under the Taliban — a fascist, racist government — is not great — but you could argue that the quality of life is better than perpetual violence. That’s a model that could reduce the overall level of violence, at least in the short term. In the long term, there needs to be a change in strategy — and also just good governance. The government is extremely corrupt, and therefore really ineffective in a lot of the country. It needs an overhaul.

Was it hard to leave the unit behind after spending a whole year with them, sharing these intense experiences?

I often feel a lot of guilt when I’m doing my films. This one was particularly difficult, because it was so easy for me to leave. It was always really awkward when I went back and they were still there, although they never asked for sympathy. We did five trips, so we said goodbye five times — the final time knowing that I might never see them again.

Of course, however difficult it is for me is no comparison to the sort of life they have to live every day. There is very clearly a privilege there. The only thing that makes me feel better is that I hope I’ve fulfilled my responsibility to them — that I’ve told this story in a way that’s honest, engaging and genuine. In a way that looks real to an Afghan, that shows people outside of Afghanistan what’s really happening in the war — not just what they see on the news.

Many members of the unit have seen the film, and they seem to think that we accomplished what we set out to do. That makes me feel better. It’s always a strange proposition when you say, “I’m going to live with you for a year, invade your privacy, probably annoy the hell out of you — but, trust me, it’s for a good reason.” They did trust me, and I feel like I’ve reciprocated that trust and fulfilled my obligation to them. But I’m just extremely grateful that they tolerated that for so long, and still see me as a friend.