The Land of the Enlightened is a 2016 documentary directed by Pieter-Jean de Pue. It is set in Afghanistan, before Barrack Obama announced the withdrawal of American troops from the country. The documentary’s main focus is a group of child soldiers, with secondary narratives about the American soldiers stationed there and a number of local Afghan families. The Land of the Enlightened is described as a “hybrid documentary feature film”. It combines elements of documentary, such as voice-overs and unscripted events with stylistic imagery and editing that make it look like a feature film.
The film starts with the legend of a mighty Afghanistan, a narrative that envelops the progress of the documentary and remains in the background for its duration. The legend talks about an Afghanistan disputed by many kings and destroyed by many countries without managing to find its leader, its “Khan”. A magical land- “the garden of God”, abused by many; a land of warriors who are trying to make things right. All the characters presented in the documentary seem to be a modern-day Afghan warrior, including the American soldiers: one soldier in particular states that he would like to remain in Afghanistan and become their king. If he were a king, he would then get an army of children on his side because “they are like clowns”: so scary because they are meant to be so innocent. This leads into the second central aspect of the documentary: the age of innocence.
The carefree age of childhood does not exist for these children who live surrounded by war, and the director carefully selects scenes that portray this notion in the most powerful way. There are children gleefully playing with bomb shells, disarming mines, trading bullets and opium and making toys out of warfare brass. There are child soldiers, who trade goods, steal and negotiate like adults who have lived through a lifetime of difficulty.
There’s something almost comedic in the way a prepubescent boy refers to a naked woman in lewd terms, about how the leader of the group is no older than 12 and dreams to marry a girl who is probably around 8; there’s something perversely comic about their getting high on opium and cleaning their Kalashnikovs. But at the same time there’s nothing funny about it. Their behaviour strongly mirrors the grown American soldiers, and by overlapping their lifestyles de Pue brilliantly and subtly portrays the drama of war: these children who should know nothing about opiates, guns or sex are in fact as much a product of war as the trained American soldiers. Their training is not the organised military, it is the destroyed country they inhabit and that hasn’t given them any other choice.
And this is where the third core aspect of this film comes into play: who wins a war? This is a question that creeps into the mind of the viewer from the early stages of the film. Is it the American soldiers who act like the friends of the Afghan population, yet contribute to their destruction in the war? Or is it the Afghan child soldiers who offer protection against the Taliban, yet aren’t afraid to rob, threaten and use violence to get what they need? Who should be glorified and celebrated by history as a winner?
My answer would be: nobody. Because when you see a child digging up a landmine and calling it a friend, when you see a hyped version of masculinity that makes army men desensitised to violence and child soldiers who are feared by grown adults, the answer can only be “nobody is the winner”. And Pieter-Jean de Pue subtly makes the audience realise that, through a documentary that makes the familiarity of the Afghanistan war unfamiliar, reinforces in the audience the shock that such violence should always cause.
The Land Of The Enlightened will be in selected cinemas from November 11.