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Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, Swedish Cinema

Films From the South #3: Finding Ali (Sweden 2011)

The subject of 'Finding Ali' as he was in 2002.

It could be argued that this film is more ‘about the South’ than ‘from the South’ but it certainly worked for me as what felt like a much more authentic ‘voice’ from Afghanistan than most of the news or current affairs programmes that I have seen. It formed part of the festival’s documentary strand and in this specific screening also part of a strand termed ‘The Critical Room’ in a session titled ‘Afghanistan – the Civil Society’. This comprised a discussion before the screening in which three panelists offered personal viewpoints on the prospects for civil society in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of western forces in 2014. The panelists were Director of PRIO (Peace Research Institute Oslo) Kristian Berg Harpviken, leader of the Afghanistan Comittee Linda Våge and the Iranian filmmaker and author of the international bestseller Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep (2002) Siba Shakib. The debate was convened by Jarle Roheim Håkonsen from NRK (Norwegian Public Service Broadcaster).

I was very impressed by the level of debate and contributions from the floor. I thought the convenor asked some ‘leading’ questions about the potential pragmatism of the Taliban but the three panelists gave much more considered answers. The consensus seemed to be that the best hope for Afghanistan was that left to its own devices a stronger civil society in the country could deal with the Taliban in its own way and that the best support for the Afghanis would be concrete infrastructure improvements such as roads, power supply, transportation systems etc. – and not the failed American-funded efforts which have so far not delivered. Interestingly much of what the panel (and the audience) said was re-iterated in the film.

Pål Hollender introduces his film

Finding Ali was written, directed and filmed by Pål Hollender for his own production company and was presented via a 2K digital print on what is, I think, the biggest screen used during the festival. It looked terrific. Hollender had first visited Afghanistan with his camera in 2001 and had befriended a nine year-old Afghan boy, Ali. The boy had a real personality and quickly learned sufficient English in Kabul (where his father had a shop) to converse quite freely on his feelings about the situation he found himself in. Hollender decided ten years on to return to Afghanistan and to try to find Ali to see how he had changed, along with the country. He cleverly structures his documentary narrative so that first we only see the younger Ali in clips from the earlier film as Hollender tours the country asking local police about the boy – mainly, I think, as an excuse to expose some of the local conditions. He finds Ali eventually.

Hollender is to some extent a ‘performer’ in his documentary but not in the same way that a Michael Moore or a Nick Broomfield takes over (and ‘provokes’) the action. I found Hollender more engaging and quite witty in his attempts to get points across. Some of what he uncovers is quite mind-boggling, including the luxury hotel and armour-plated vehicles used by some western personnel. Later on in the film he becomes the centre of a quite dramatic sequence but mostly he allows ordinary Afghanis (all men except for a single woman) to speak directly to camera and what they say is quite revealing – and quite shaming for western supporters of the ‘War Against Terror’. (Hollender recognises the difficulties he faces attempting to ask women to speak.) There are a few cinematic devices in the film such as occasional freeze frames but Hollender’s strength is finding simple but powerful images. He’s also good on simple historical observations, e.g. showing how Kabul looked in the 1960s. In fact he finishes on what should be a much better-known quotation from the British General who in 1880 suggested to London that the best policy was to “leave the Afghans alone and they will have less reason to hate us”.  The British Raj in India has a lot to answer for, but not all its leaders were fools. Finding Ali deserves a cinema release – I hope the 2K print means that it will get one in Scandinavia at least.

Here’s a taste from YouTube:

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