With an assemblage of beautiful, 16mm documentary footage and hyper-real fictional segments, first-time Belgian director Pieter-Jan De Pue crafts an ethereal and compelling meditation on the relationship between war, landscape and those that inhabit it. Assembled from footage collected over seven years De Pue spent working as a photographer for the International Red Cross, The Land of The Enlightened is more intimate and lyrical than other documentaries to have breached the Afghan conflicts. Indeed, the extremes of war in ‘God’s garden’ encourage a certain bombastic approach, one that many filmmakers have been drawn to. Taking a more dreamy, romantic route, De Pue’s didactic intent in somewhat obscured beneath layers of docu-fiction hybridity. However, in switching between the staged narrative of a group of young teenage boys living in a former Soviet outpost in the Pamir Mountains and the daily routine of life in a joint American-Afghani military base, De Pue demonstrates the fundamental commerce of conflict: the exchange between a transient invading force and the impacted national landscape.
The Land of The Enlightened begins with one of De Pue’s dramatised segments: the leader of a group of young marauders, Gholam Nasir, and a friend listen to a radio slung from a length of barbed wire. A news report details the American president’s plan to begin removing troops from Afghanistan. The boys decide that this is the opportune time to carry out their plan. In voiceover, Nasir recounts the mythic history of Afghanistan, formerly the bountiful, private garden of God himself. Throughout the centuries, invading forces have come and gone, seeking to rob the land of its bounty – opium and lapis lazuli. Nasir privately envisions himself as a ‘holy warrior’ with a duty to protect it. These ideas are articulated in quiet but confident asides, wherein Nasir also informs us of his intention to marry the daughter of a local opium addict.
These segments are staged, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. So expertly are they woven into the cinematic fabric, an allegoric voiceover from the group’s leader is perhaps the only rigid signifier of the film’s fictional moments. The children take part in a version of their own very real experience – early footage of the boys sawing the head off a struggling goat is intensely disturbing in the film’s wider documentary context. However, these sequences only really become genuinely compelling when juxtaposed with The Land of The Enlightened’s real documentary footage: American forces alternate between working out in a makeshift gym and decimating the local hillsides with artillery; young boys mine for lapis using old, incredibly volatile Soviet landmines; an American army commander tries to gain the assistance of unresponsive villagers; children plays in the shells of old tanks in an enormous military scrap yard.
Across varied terrains and climates – green valleys, hyperborean snowscapes and desolate badlands – De Pue presents a land that prevails and overcomes despite centuries of invading rule. With artful montage, we witness an exchange of the remnants of war: that which is left behind, whether human or otherwise. Indeed, the American troops are an invading force that’s outlasted its war, doing little now but spilling their used ordnance onto the surrounding landscape to become the tools of a younger generation. Nasir’s boys use grenades to fish and spent Kalashnikov casings to weigh against bags of opium. A young boy with a prosthetic leg carefully digs up an old Soviet mine; earlier on in The Land of The Enlightened we witness another group of boys implementing one as a mining device. Old military barbed wire is improvised as rope and artillery casings are used to transport lapis lazuli, excavated from a seven thousand-year-old mine. Children make their homes in abandoned military outposts and Afghani forces collect spent brass bullets to exchange for food and which may eventually be melted down, turn into IEDs and used to kill them.
While the staged segments detract somewhat from the intimacy of De Pue’s wider documentary, the director succeeds admirably in exhibiting this unnatural exchange, between the invading force and the natural landscape. The forced transference of power creates a vacuum of authority in which such an exchange is not only possible, but essential. “Soon our visitors will go home,” states Nasir. That may be, but it is only a matter of time, De Pue suggests, before history repeats itself.