Early in James Longley’s “Angels Are Made of Light,” a clear-eyed and confrontational portrait of daily life in modern Afghanistan, a disembodied voice narrates an ancient story about an old man who wandered the streets with a lantern in broad daylight. When people questioned why he would do such a thing, the old man replied: “I am looking for a human being.” Versions of this vague parable exist in several cultures (the Greeks assigned it to Diogenes the Cynic, who facetiously sought “an honest man”), but they’re bound by a shared truth: Seeing a person is not the same thing as recognizing his or her intrinsic value.
“Angels Are Made of Light” is a documentary shot with a lantern in broad daylight. It’s a film about the Afghan people that attempts to see them more closely than most Westerners are accustomed, and to restore a basic humanity that’s been overruled by a forever war that most locals have no interest in fighting. There are any number of inherent pitfalls to a white American making a movie about the hardships and dignities of poor brown people — especially when that movie is so explicitly aimed at a white American audience — Longley’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated “Iraq in Fragments” finds a way to negotiate between empathy and condescension.
Two ways, actually. The first is that “Angels Are Made of Light” focuses on children who were born into the war, and have never lived outside its shadow. Shot over three years, and mostly set inside the crumbling walls of the Daqiqi Balkhi School in Kabul, the film centers on three sons of a Daqiqi Balkhi schoolteacher. Longley’s roving camera is often positioned at the boys’ eye level, and their most private thoughts bleed over the soundtrack in a series of hopeful whispers (Longley isolates the audio from his interviews and layers it over his observational footage, resulting in a rich feeling of interiority).
Sohrab loves books, and hopes to avoid a life of manual labor. Rostam, his older brother, aspires to be like their oven-maker father. Yaldash, the youngest, already feels trapped in the tin shop where he works after school. These boys are defined by a country that’s been home to any number of violent conflicts over the last century (especially since the Saur Revolution of 1978, and the Soviet-Afghan war against the Mujahideen that began the following year), but they also exist apart from that history, no matter how natural it might be for outsiders to conflate them with it.
Across the film’s slippery timeline, and through long and formless scenes of these kids learning in school or hurling snowballs at each other other on the street, Longley disassociates his subjects from our most reductive impressions of life in Afghanistan. All but the film’s most aimless scenes tend to work towards that goal, with only occasional bursts of archival footage pulling away from it, as their added context comes at the expense of a more consistent focus.
It’s regrettable that we still need documentaries to argue for the humanity of people who Americans don’t tend to think about, but “Angels Are Made of Light” is so unusually effective because — like the old man with his lantern — it challenges the idea that looking at a person (or a people) is enough to see them clearly. Much of the movie is preoccupied with the day-to-day business of trying to educate children in a country torn apart by war; at one point, a wall of the school building crumbles, injuring two students and forcing Daqiqi Balkhi to permanently relocate. But just as much is bent toward the act of observation, as Longley engages in a two-way conversation with his target audience.
The first hints of self-consciousness arrive when one of the film’s subjects begins talking about their faith in angels — the belief of being watched by unseen protectors. That idea takes on a dark new dimension in the film’s second half, when Longley draws our attention to the heavenly white aerostat that floats against the turquoise skies. An 117-foot military surveillance blimp that hovers in the air above the city, the aerostat turns all of Kabul into a giant panopticon, effectively perverting the act of observation into something ominous.
As the movie goes on, we recognize that merely watching it is not an inherent good. In his own subtle way, Longley puts his finger on the parasitic nature of well-meaning liberal viewers cleansing their souls with images of other peoples’ lives. Documentaries like this have a tendency to frame their subjects’ humanity in a way that flatters our own, as though recognizing the intrinsic value of a largely invisible person is an accomplishment of some kind. Your cultural vegetables are someone else’s existence.
But “Angels Are Made of Light” harnesses that queasy effect toward its own goal by situating the audience as spectators and then denying us any degree of self-satisfaction. Simply watching someone can be predatory and oppressive; the only virtue is in seeing them for who they really are, and broadening your perspective in response. Longley’s film may not inspire you to stop what you’re doing and fly to Kabul on a peacekeeping mission, but it doesn’t have to.
Without laying on a serious guilt trip, the documentary refracts our relative helplessness through the hard work we see on screen, using it to underscore the frustrated promise of these young students, the incredible perseverance of their teachers, and the burden they all carry for a better tomorrow. It’s not always riveting, and it’s not always clear, but “Angels Are Made of Light” manages to find several human beings, and not just by inviting us to admire our own reflections.
“Angels Are Made of Light” premiered at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival. It will also play at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.