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Locarno Review: Well-Intentioned Omnibus Doc 'Far From Afghanistan' Has Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire August 7, 2012 at 11:17AM

The sprawling concept draws together the considerable talents of five established non-fiction filmmakers and several Afghan journalists for an essayistic exploration of the war's debilitating impact on both the local population and U.S. citizenry. It's also a far-reaching treatise against all acts of war.
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"Far From Afghanistan."

Noble in theory, erratic in execution, the omnibus documentary "Far From Afghanistan" is a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen. The sprawling concept, overseen by John Gianvito ("Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind"), draws together the considerable talents of five established non-fiction filmmakers and several Afghan journalists for an essayistic exploration of the war's debilitating impact on both the local population and U.S. citizenry. It's also a far-reaching treatise against all acts of war, with detailed observations that are alternately provocative and obtuse. As with many anthologies, there's just too much stuffed into a single package.

At best a stirring look at the inherently destructive impact of any incursion, the movie suffers from frequent didacticism. Numerous segments use onscreen text to share figures and quotations that often distract from the sheer power of the footage. This tendency to complicate the material with text creates the impression of a fragmented Noam Chomsky lecture.

Nevertheless, "Far From Afghanistan" contains an immersive amalgam of images both militaristic and gut-wrenchingly intimate, but it lacks a cogent device to make the greater thesis hold together. It shows better than it tells.

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The scope of "Far From Afghanistan," which ranges from disorderly Afghan clinics to the calm abode of a drone pilot in Palmdale, California, ultimately holds less weight than the minute details. Gianvito's own contribution provides a strong start: Entitled "My Heart Swims in Blood," the segment seamlessly veers from claustrophobic Afghan tents to bland American shopping malls, drawing a sharp contrast between daily struggles under militaristic oppression and the obliviousness of the alleged oppressor. The contrast might seem crass were it not for the poetic quality of Gianvito's presentation, which skillfully veers from chaotic, disturbing images of oppression to tranquil ignorance.

From a single barrage of images, "Far From Afghanistan" shifts to several at once for another effective entry, this one by Jon Jost: "Empire's Cross" presents a Marshall MacLuhan-like breakdown of wartime propaganda built around a pair of Eisenhower speeches that caution against rampant military belligerence. Placed at the center of a complex split-screen arrangement, Eisenhower's words cast an ironic shadow on contemporary images of America's current acts of destruction.

Unfortunately, "Far From Afghanistan" is front-loaded with its best efforts. Minda Martin provides the movie's sole narrative effort, a fairly disquieting but also deadeningly ponderous experimental look at a drone operator casually engaged in Skype calls from his comfortable home and ordering attacks while munching on fast food. While intriguing in parts, the concept is out of synch with the rest of the project as it moves from unsettling authentic footage to blatantly staged ingredients.

Travis Wilkerson's "Fragments of Dissolution" and Soon-Mi Yoo's "Afghanistan: The Next Generation" prove the weakest links. Wilkerson takes off on an entirely separate and distracting tangent. With the onscreen text announcement that "the virus has infected its host," Wilkerson touches on soldier suicides through the testimonies of their relatives, then oddly incorporates the laments of a woman whose siblings died in a fire because of their misuse of an "illegal hookup" to get the heat they couldn't afford. Yoo's segment is similarly digressive in its eclectic combination of news reports and staged footage to elaborate on the ideas that Gianvito more effectively conveys early on.

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Inspired by "Far From Vietnam," the 1967 anti-Vietnam War missive that featured work by several rock stars of the French New Wave, "Far From Afghanistan" clearly represents a valiant attempt to contemplate the modern tragedies of war in the face of growing ambivalence. The lack of cohesion is less problematic than the way it eludes a radical edge -- it only occasionally attains the necessary polemics to justify its heft.

As it goes with hot-button issues, "Far From Afghanistan" has company. A similar collage of ideas about America's latest overseas assaults, the installation project "9 Scripts from a Nation at War" -- which recently completed a six-month run at the Museum of Modern Art -- provides a more measured approach to its topic. Comprised of 10 videos shown on multiple screens with various perspectives on the 2003 Iraq invasion, "9 Scripts" delivers a rumination on the event through a plurality of voices but lets visitors discover them through a customizable process. "Far From Afghanistan" offers plenty of cogent ideas, some better than others, but it also traps viewers in a largely uneven linear viewing experience. War means different things to different people, but under no circumstances should it be perceived as a straight line.

Criticwire grade: B-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Likely to play at the Toronto International Film Festival, "Far From Afghanistan" should also play various documentary festivals, where it's core audience can discover it. A limited theatrical release is a possibility in the hands of a distributor willing to play up the conversational aspects to thread it into existing coverage of the war. However, as always with documentaries about this topic, its commercial prospects are limited to ancillary markets.

This article is related to: Reviews, Locarno International Film Festival, Far From Afghanistan