“Every spectator is either a coward or a traitor” –– Frantz Fanon
Images, and the lack thereof, have constituted the backbone of the “war on terror.” They have forged the moral standards upon which a barbaric neo-imperial war has been waged, from the obsessive repetition of the collapsing World Trade Center becoming part of the national subconscious in less than a day, to the images of veiled women and bearded men burning the American flag. And then are those out of frame, the “invisible:” misery, death and despair courtesy of Western democracies and their charitable attempt to bring freedom to the primitives. A toxic narrative had to be woven into our collective imagination in order to justify the unjustifiable.
Fittingly enough, a war against a feeling (for terror is not a physical entity but an emotive one) has been conducted with images, the most powerful tool of emotional manipulation. American filmmaker John Gianvito (“The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein,” “Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind”) conceived and carried out “Far From Afghanistan,” a multitudinal omnibus film featuring what (il)liberal censorship democratically conceals from the public eye. It is not a pleasant sight, but it is a necessary one if only to grasp the abyss that separates the public perception of war from its factual dimensions. The film though is not a mere exposure of war crimes committed against an innocent nation, at least not straightforwardly so. Its main intent is to deconstruct the dominant narrative, sabotaging its rhetoric to liberate the repressed visions of war and its consequences.
This is certainly not the first attempt to circumnavigate the mass-mediated hurdle of propaganda; Alex Gibney’s “Taxi to the Dark Side” was a profound and critical interrogation of the slippery ethical battleground of war zones. Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” similarly reflected on the practice of warfare as indivisible from its narrative and representational strategies. Yet the scope and courage of “Far From Afghanistan” convey a bigger picture while trying to understand the socioeconomic implications (on both sides of the fence) of this taxpayers-funded war. As a voiceover-ing Noam Chomsky points out in the opening sequence of the film, the very existence and necessity of censorship prove the latent fear the dominant order nurtures towards indignation and dissent. One of the cardinal assumptions of the Third Cinema stated that “freeing a forbidden vision means setting free the possibility of indignation and subversion,” but it remains to be seen (if you’ll forgive the pun) how many people will actually see this film, which has already been turned down by the selection committees of Telluride and Venice.
It is the “drone syndrome” entering our visual horizon, neutralizing the possibility to be morally implicated and therefore erasing compassion from our vocabulary. As we get to see in the film, the war criminal is just a mum-loving guy, taking a heavy toll behind the aseptic comfort of his own laptop while ordering take-away food between drone strikes. Such is our warped understanding of warfare that the notion of more American soldiers taking their own lives than actually being killed on the battlefield feels almost implausible. The American Dream cannot afford to celebrate losers and cowards, we learn, only heroes. But then again very little makes sense in this “war on terror,” as a memorable clip from the American Information Agency praising the mujahideen and their holy war against the invader (the Soviet Union at that time) shows.
Thankfully, cinema registers and remembers those stories we are now prohibited from watching. Take, for example, the third instalment of the renowned “Rambo” franchise, “Rambo III,” set in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, when the US was merrily training Muslim fundamentalists and providing them with Stinger missiles (the same ones that are now fired against Marines). In one of the most moving sequences of the film, the mujahideen (played by underpaid Israeli extras) explain the just necessity of a holy war against the invaders, thus earning Rambo’s devoted support. “Our children die of diseases, mines, and poisonous gas, and the women are raped and killed; yet nobody sees anything or reads anything in the papers” says one freedom fighter to Rambo. “We are holy warriors and to us death for our land is an honor!” Even the emotionless facial features of Sylvester Stallone cannot resist such injustices; Rambo cracks under the weight of compassion as he promises the mujahideen to help them in their struggle. Supporting the Taliban these days is more likely to be awarded with a lengthy holiday in Guantanamo than with a film award, but if left-wing documentaries are not your thing, “Rambo III” remains a valid alternative.
That said, Gianvito’s project is a necessary operation. Compared to the films of Emile de Antonio or even “Far From Vietnam,” the homonymous collective effort by French directors in the 1960s to bring Vietnam closer, one cannot help but notice how the legitimate armed resistance against an illegitimate invasion (vociferously endorsed during the Vietnam War) is now an embarrassing taboo. At least until a new “Rambo” comes along…
Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an “open reputation” informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent spect-actors. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands. This piece is part of Indiewire’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.