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DC/DOX 2024: 'Hollywoodgate' Shares Access to the Daily Lives of the Taliban

Washington D.C.-based documentary film festival DC/DOX is only in its second year of existence, but you wouldn't know by the looks of it. Spread across 10 viewing locations in the DMV area, the 4-day, Washington Post-sponsored event is organized with remarkable finesse, screening both celebrated titles from the 2023-2024 festival circuits and those launching their world premieres. The vision is coherent, the panels are engaging, and you'd be in the minority if you were not at least partially swept up in the social justice efforts of the filmmakers. I was grateful to see five movies, all of which had in-person panels. My memory aided by my scribbled, lopsided notes, I will now provide the service of reporting back about what I saw.

My first screening took place at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater. The name “Hollywoodgate” implies a Los Angeles-set film, but the documentary was in fact shot in Afghanistan. Egyptian journalist Ibrahim Nash’at, a freelancer, was granted extraordinary access to the everyday lives of the Taliban Air Force. The film’s title is based on the name of an abandoned military unit – presumably the CIA’s, although that has not been confirmed – that the Taliban has been casually pilfering through since the U.S. withdrawal in 2021. The astonishing statistic that $7.12 billion worth of American military equipment was left in the country when the U.S. finally pulled out doesn't flash on the screen until the end of the film. However, in the post-film Q&A, Nash’at and his co-panelist, Jason Dempsey, emphasized that the extremist group is not considerably more powerful with the machinery than without it. Lacking the proper considerations for the terrain and the culture, the U.S. was long fighting a losing war.

There’s much to explore from a content perspective, but it should be recognized that Nash’at was lucky to escape with his life. It took him months to find a proper contact in the country after the U.S. left, and, dead broke, he nearly went home. Luckily, a fixer connected him with a cousin, who connected him with the theatrical Tajik Air Force Commander Mawlawi, the eventual star of his film. Nash’at speculates that Mawlawi was willing to be filmed because of ego: being Tajik means that he feels an extra pressure to prove himself in his surroundings. Mawlawi also noted that he didn’t want to embarrass himself "in front of China."

The Taliban leaders frequently threatened to kill Nash'at on-camera if he were to misstep. As one official admits, “if his intentions are bad, he will die soon." If you are faint of patriotic heart, you may clutch your pearls at the Taliban’s blatant anti-Western and anti-Semitic comments. You would also be equally disturbed to witness the moments of genuine levity, such as commanders trying out the exercise equipment in the abandoned gym, an Air Force induction ceremony that includes feather boas and silly string, and a street-level hostage drill in which the leader smiles to himself and shouts “action” before pretending to serve as a target.

But for every one of these moments, there are five more chilling juxtapositions. Mawlawi talks casually of rotting bodies around his young son, who casually threatens to kill everyone in the next scene. Women are hidden, and their bodies are rudely discussed and compared to bars of chocolate that mustn’t be soiled. Admittedly, I was triggered into self-reflection by a speech condemning Westerners for lecturing so much about female liberation when they “once bought women as slaves.” Obviously, current gender relations in Afghanistan have few contemporary equals, and criticism of the Afghan administration is, in most cases, unlikely to be hypocritical. But this is their propaganda, and it is occasionally effective. “Conquering is my duty,” Mawlawi asserts stoically.

Nash’at finishes his film with a warning about the “obscene power of those who worship war and the pain that it causes for generations." The film contains no talking heads, or anything staged, for that matter. The director was treated as Taliban when roaming the streets with their crew, and not permitted to film anyone outside of the group. In the Q&A, Nash’at used a striking Sisyphus metaphor to describe his experience. The “rock” was his access, and he kept pushing it up the hill, trying his luck, terrified that it would fall and quite possibly kill him. But he swore to himself that he had to finish the film. If he gave up on his project, like the Americans did, he would not be able to forgive himself.

What you see is what you get: an observational film about the Taliban, who are largely secure in their empowerment. What now can be done?

Hollywoodgate made its world debut at Vienna Film Festival in 2023. As of June 18, it does not have a release date in the U.S.



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