Kabul: City Number One - Part 10

Thursday 8 July 2010, 18:33

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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TERABYTES AFGHANISTAN

I have just got my hands on something wonderful and precious. It is five computer drives containing the unedited rushes of everything shot by the BBC in Afghanistan over the last thirty years.

It fills 18 terabytes of space.

It has been put together by Phil Goodwin who has worked for 14 years as a cameraman for the BBC in Afghanistan.

What Phil Goodwin has done is incredibly important. I cannot praise him or thank him enough. He has rescued moments of experience - both grand and intimate, sometimes intense or odd, or sometimes where nothing happens at all.

But they are all extraordinary because they are part of something that has happened in Afghanistan since the early 1970s that has had a profound effect on the world.

Yet it is increasingly clear that we in the west have no real idea of what that thing was. Or is.

Since 2001 we have been repeatedly told, by both politicians and journalists, that our troops are there to prevent further terrorist attacks on the west, and to bring modern democracy to a backward country.

But that is now changing. William Dalrymple wrote a really good piece in the Guardian last week arguing that by installing members of the Northern Alliance as the rulers of Afghanistan in December 2001, the Americans and NATO were unwittingly taking sides in a civil war that had been going on since the early 1970s.

They installed a Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara regime that has little interest in democracy. And what are called the Taliban insurgents are in reality a rebellion by the Pashtun majority in the country against that elite. And thus might represent the will of the majority.

He also argues that the fighting has become part of the proxy wars fought between India and Pakistan for the last 45 years. This is the argument too of the Economist. It had a fascinating piece last week about how Pakistan's support for the insurgents, like the Haqqani network, is driven by its fear of the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan.

If this is true it means that we in the west have become like foolish bit-players blundering around in a complex regional war that we do not understand.

It means that soon we will start to look back at everything that has happened in Afghanistan since the 1970s and reconfigure what it all meant. And when that happens all the footage that Phil Goodwin has saved will become extraordinarily valuable.

I find watching the uncut rushes fascinating. Long, held shots that you never see in the cut news stories. I want to start by putting up some of the unedited recordings - without any cuts, or added noise or music. All I have done is shortened them in a few places, but nothing is out of sequence.

Each one will have a simple explanation of what you are watching, and when, and where. That is all.

It is just stuff recorded. It doesn't make any sense. But it doesn't make any less sense than the way Afghanistan is reported by newspapers and television.

The first is a moment in the Beauty Spa at Bagram airbase in September 2004

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Here is the attempted assassination of Hamid Karzai. It happened in September 2002 as he was leaving the Governor's mansion in Kandahar. The assassin was from Helmand and had apparently been promised two Corolla cars if he managed to kill Karzai.

The footage contains some scenes that are possibly disturbing. And because the footage is not edited the camera holds longer on dead bodies than is normal in cut news reports.

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Lots of westerners came out to Afghanistan to help the Afghans become a modern democracy. Here is an art expert who has come to teach them about Conceptual Art. It starts with a group of young Afghan artists watching film of an installation in a western gallery, then she shows them Marcel Duchamp's 1917 urinal.

She is very keen to get them to say that if anyone did what Duchamp did in today's Afghanistan then they would be put in prison. It is interesting that the Afghans in the room, though they are polite, seem to disagree.

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This is a moment in the early evening somewhere in east Afghanistan on the 28th August 2002.

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In October 1995 the national government in Kabul was under assault from the Taliban. Here are some of the government troops trying to work out how to fire a big gun. I like the bit when they go and get what seems to be the manual.

Be careful if you are listening on headphones - there are sudden very loud noises that you may not expect.

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In July 2004 Afghan security forces raided a house in Kabul and found a private prison allegedly run by an American called Jack Idema. It had eight Afghan prisoners, some hanging by their legs from the ceiling. They claimed they had been tortured.

Idema turned out to be a strange fantasist - who had conned a lot of people in Kabul for 3 years. He claimed he was working directly to Donald Rumsfeld, running a super-secret force called Task Force Sabre 7. Their job was to hunt down the most wanted terrorists.

He claimed he had worked in "black ops" all over the world - including hunting down terrorists with nuclear weapons in their rucksacks in Lithuania. He also said he carried the genetic material of a dog called Sarge who had parachuted out of planes with him and sniffed out bombs. He said he was going to clone Sarge.

Idema was put on trial in Kabul. Here are the opening moments - including him talking to the press in the court room. With him on trial is an independent film-maker called Edward Caraballo from the Bronx who was making a documentary about Idema's black-ops. He is on the left of frame next to Idema.

The Afghans standing on the other side of the court room are the men who claimed to have been imprisoned and tortured by Idema

Idema's story is fascinating. Lots of very senior people believed his extraordinary stories. But we are now beginning to realise that many of the same people have believed a lot of other strange fantasies about Afghanistan over the past 9 years.

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    "And what are called the Taliban insurgents are in reality a rebellion by the Pashtun majority in the country against that elite. And thus might represent the will of the majority."

    While the Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, they contribute roughly 40% of the population. Which is not the majority. The Tadik-Uzbek-Hazara coalition is larger, between 45% and 50%.

    Congrats with acquiring the BBC's motherlode of Afghan reporting.

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    Comment number 2.

    Oops. I meant Tajik, not Tadik.

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    Comment number 3.

    I look forward to your new film about Afghanistan, and I'll just assume that it will be as excellent as your previous film essays.

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    Comment number 4.

    Fantastic as always, thanks Adam.

    Is that the project then? Will there be a history of Afghanistan in a series of films like The Trap etc? If so that is pretty damn exciting, can't wait.

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    Comment number 5.

    I don't think the gunner is reading the manual for how to operate the gun; I believe that 'howitzers' which fire at targets out of sight of the gunner, need to be fired at a map reference or some other vector, maybe radio link to the forward spotter. This means constant referencing to a chart which gives the gunner windage and elevation values for adjusting targetting; hence the looking at chart, then looking through the sight, then winding the lever to the new position.

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    Comment number 6.

    "The unedited rushes...",

    So when our man Idema drops the F-bomb, was that you that beeped him Adam?

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    Comment number 7.

    At the risk of making John Wayne a revolutionary, but he must be turning in his grave: This is a man's war, fought by a man's army... having a manicure!?

    They may win a few purple hearts, dodging fire from angry American Tax payers.

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    Comment number 8.

    When the 'conceptual arts' lecturer said: "You're saying this is not useful to humanity... what's your point?", it put me in mind of all those other relativist from left wing university campuses, who fail, as a badge of honour, to grasp common sense.

    I recall from Yuri Bezmenov's YouTube lectures, on soviet subversion in the west, that such left wing groups were encouraged and supported by Moscow, to add to the western moral and ethical decline, prior to 'chaos', and subsequent communist take over. What if the west is trying the same thing?

    Instead of: "Yet it is increasingly clear that we in the west have no real idea of what that thing was. Or is.", we could replace it with: The west appears to not know what it is doing, as a cover for deliberately provoking unrest, a la subversion.

    The west wants to be in Afghanistan for strategic placement, between the oil rich middle east, Russia, China, and India. There is also an expensive amount of oil and gas to be transported from Uzbekistan via pipelines through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, which will need protection.

    Think of it as the suitors plaguing Penelope whilst Odysseus is away. Odysseus would be represented by a stable strong independent Afghanistan; whilst the suitors are represented by the chaos of deliberate provocation of the tribes and the cultures. If one group is removed, the suitors warn Penelope that she will be raped by those left, so you have to feed us all to be safe.

    If the west appeared as smart as it is, then the ruse would be up.

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    Comment number 9.

    This may seem a tedious or naive question, but why can't all 18TB of data be placed online somewhere for everyone to see, to annotate, to index and to collaboratively weave into the fabric of conversation online?

    Having been peripherally involved in the BBCs attempts in the past to open up their content to public access I understand the legal problems of releasing entire finished programs (licensed music and footage, legal releases from the subjects etc.) but since all this footage was shot by BBC cameramen, and is presumably completely owned by the corporation, surely there wouldn't be any legal issues?

    As you point out, the value of an archive like this is extraordinary -but only if it can actually play a part in the conversation. The value of material like this increases the more it's seen, the more it becomes linked and edited and quoted and indexed.

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    Comment number 10.

    @ stenkarazin

    What exactly do you mean by “common sense”? When a man attacks conceptual artists (and presumably artists in general), but at the same time invokes John Wayne (or more accurately the artist formerly known as Marion, who never saw military service having been rejected by the US Naval academy and managing to avoid serving in WWII, who also went to university in California btw), and cannibalises the actors later guilt ridden political missives; it does leave one in some doubt that such a person is capable of defining common sense, much less of practising it. Oh, btw it's not good form to leave repeated posts in a line. It leaves you open to accusations that “the empty can rattles the most”. Is Jack Idema a friend of yours by any chance?
    It's postings such as the above that make me appreciate all the more professional and highly intelligent commentators such as Adam Curtis.

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    Comment number 11.

    It is strange how stenkarazin has such an issue with the artist, and yet the right wing nut Jack Idema gets a free pass. Kinda puts me in mind of all those other right wingers who fail, as a badge of honour, to grasp reality.
    Or perhaps stenkarazin finds his story plausible? Do you? Or in your world is he also a "conceptual artist", but one that you just happen to approve of, so you apply a filter? Take your blinkers off mate.Yes, this particular artist is naive, but your failure to pick up on the fantasist and his parachuting spirit dog makes me wonder if you're really the sort of person who should be lecturing people on common sense.

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    Comment number 12.

    Seriously though, can anyone think of a reason how some guy with 8 blokes chained up in his basement cannot be seen as anything other than abnormal? Am I missing something?

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    Comment number 13.

    Maybe it's because I lack "common sense".

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    Comment number 14.

    What makes a man risk his life for his culture? Even without completely answering that, I will suppose that the answer must include the inherent 'value' that the culture in question, holds for the desperate.

    In our western culture, we have allowed Marcel Duchamp's 1917 urinal, to mean that 'art' is subjective to the artists freedom to stipulate. And that's ignoring the possibility that Duchamp was simply mocking the art of his day, in such a manner that the average Parisian would instantly understand. The west's art departments have lead the way with this 'relativism' to meaning in general; as much as it seems liberating to be free from conservative culture, this freedom to stipulate anything, divorces the student from their culture.

    It is a great opportunity for western 'left-wing art types', to learn from a culture that still believes in itself, to the point where men will put their very existence on the line, in opposition to a culture that puts other peoples sons on the line, after they've had a refreshing manicure.

    It's a tragedy that the strength of a culture, has to be proven by its destruction, and that those who support the alternative 'culture', are themselves not prepared to enter the front-line, but instead undermine their hosts with fifth column agitprop, under the metonymy of conceptual art.

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    Comment number 15.

    I'd go as far to say this as close you'll get to Cinéma vérité. Interesting it's taken the relatively new median of the internet to fufill this movements initial intentions.

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    Comment number 16.

    It's fascinating stuff for sure but to be fair it's not cinema verite really. It's more like the idea of Direct Cinema, as far as that is ever achievable.

    If you check out Vertov stuff, or that damn Nanook film, there's style everywhere and the associations, the 'truths' are very clearly imposed by the filmmaker. The events are even consciously orchestrated. And like all film there are choices in terms of angles and lighting and tracking and most importantly of all, editing. So what goes in, what's cut out, what goes together. It's the heart of film, that's why they make you watch Regles De Joue 50,000 times when you study film (despite the fact I think I may have spelt it wrong).

    From what I remember, Cinema Verite never claimed to be a objective record of events, it was supposed to subjective, that's the big misnomer about how the term is used. But it got this 'cinema of truth' tag so people assume it was the idea of this all-seeing, non-intrusive eye just watching; in fact it tries to do the opposite, it scrupulously tries to reveal truths through employing different elements of style. This is actually what most art does, but film has this unfortunate (because film is implicitly a modern and technological form I thin) association with some kind of absolute truth. This, coupled with how close it is to our everyday sensual experience of the world compared to other forms, is what makes it so powerful.

    It actually occurs to me that the aesthetics and politics of Adam's films are closely related in some respect, that objective rational truths aren't everything, or perhaps even anything, and morality/truth derives from subjective human experience. Some of his stuff, although it's been a while since I saw it, reminds me of Man With The Movie Camera.

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    Comment number 17.

    @ "If this is true it means that we in the west have become like foolish bit-players blundering around in a complex regional war that we do not understand."
    In Britain the media wails that we will *let down our soldiers who have died, if we cut and run now*. Given that the soldier in a democracy has to remain apolitical, the only people who can speak up for him/her are the folks back home and if we choose to send more to die in order to pay respect to those who have died - then truly they will be lions led by donkeys.
    Whatever military budget is focussed on Afghanistan should be ring-fenced into financial aid to this poor benighted country for the same duration as the military adventure was planned. I read someplace that America has spent more money on just building the roadways to service it's military bases, than has ever been spent on managed assistance for the Afghans to reconstruct their civilisation.
    Time to start adding in the construction of the Spa's now, I guess............

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    Comment number 18.

    "They installed a Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara regime that has little interest in democracy. And what are called the Taliban insurgents are in reality a rebellion by the Pashtun majority in the country against that elite. And thus might represent the will of the majority"--is a very simplistic and reductive argument, even though it has some vocal exponents. The biggest problem with this narrative is that Karzai himself is a Pushtun as are a significant number of cabinet ministers and parliamentarians (unless of course we get into the business of determining who the "true" Pushtun are).

    In any case, I am happy with the find. Any chance the stash will be available publicly?

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    Comment number 19.

    I love raw news footage, it's so much more interesting than the edited stuff on the news.

    Reading this reminded me of a site that sadly no longer exists which was called www.fallujah.us.

    On here you could watch raw news footage from the Fallujah, what did they call it?...Surge?

    I used some of the footage in a video experiment you can watch here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-txlFfUClVM

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    Comment number 20.

    Watching Trying to Kill Hamid Karzai sent shiver down my spine. I was producing with Phil and correspondent Lyse Doucet that day. You can see me in a brown shirt grovelling on ground! Phil's filming is an astonishing achievement. At one stage he was in direct line of fire from American Special Forces. Later they said they would have shot him if it had been the optimum moment to down the assailant. The three men on the ground are still dying. Two are innocent: an afghan bodyguard and a civilian fan of the President, who both took on the Taliban man, who is in the green uniform. I took stills for myself http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithernesto/ because I was worried there would not be a record of the horror due to sanitising the images for British consumption. In the middle of the night after suddenly being sent down to Kandahar airbase by land as decoys for the president we had an uneasy flight to Kabul: US special forces on the Herc sitting next to the Afghan bodyguards -one of whom they had shot dead hours earlier.

 

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