Keswick Film Club - Reviews - The Land of the Enlightened

Reviews - The Land of the Enlightened

The Land of the Enlightened

Reviewed By John Porter

The Land of the Enlightened
The Land of the Enlightened
Screened at Rheged on Sunday evening, 'The Land of the Enlightened' (2016, Pieter-Jan De Pue) provided an alternate impression of the lives and conflicts in North Eastern Afghanistan through a shifting lens of myth, childhood, and reportage. The atmosphere of the movie is established early: Opening with a voice over by a young man, we are told of the legendary origins of the territory, of 'God's Garden', and of the ancient kings who convened with deities. As the imagery of barren mountains with their threadings of water mixes with sequences of poppy heads being sliced by razors, the myths recounted in the voice over also fuse with history as Genghis Khan enters the tale. Truth and fable are fluid, and commingle in this part of the world, and the movie is no different. A gang of young boys live in an abandoned Russian military outpost. They scavenge weapons, steal opium, and trade in both, with a rag-taggle assortment of nomadic caravans and warlords who also inhabit the steppe as their business partners.

Shot on handheld super-16mm, De Pue's images are grainy and rough, achieving a sense that a one-man film-crew is observing this hidden society moving around the plains. This creates an intimate atmosphere which works to peak our curiosity and draw us into the more secretive aspects of the lives of the boys, whilst simultaneously enhancing the loneliness of the geography, and the strange, out-on-a-limb danger of the situation. The format never impedes the ambition of De Pue however, alternately using both time lapse and slow motion to capture the scale of fact and fiction working upon the land. Shooting on 16mm also enables the director to incorporate the facets of celluloid that are often written out of digital photography as flaws; the gradual overexposure to a pure white frame as the sun rises, the scratches on the master print, and the occasional wildly shifting colours from the development process. The cinematography results as a perfect riding of style, a blend of improvisation and control, feeling like a filmmaker who is truly delighting in his art.

To join the documentary passages together, De Pue uses a narrative that is at times so fleeting that it seems to stem from the same source as the misty figures of legend of which we have previously heard tell. The leader of the gang dreams in a flat, dispassionate voice, and we listen. He dreams about marrying his prepubescent bride and riding to Kabul. Here he will take the palace, become the king promised to the country so long ago, and live with her as his queen. This freedom of the children moving between legend and modernity works wonders, and the voice over is a perfect conduit, but the dialogue within the scenes often seems to be little more than basic explanation of background, sometimes coming across as slightly forced and cheapening to the visuals. It is never overbearingly so however, and even with this and the one dimensionality of the characters, the movie flows consistently and evenly, clunky dialogue sometimes even enhancing the movie's surreal aspects.

This being Afghanistan, the issue of an occupying force is never far away, and the Americans are shown as being just the latest in a long line of colonisers. Sequences of U.S. army grunts portray them as brash with irreverent humour, weight lifting, listening to dance music, and showering fire on the surrounding hills from the safety of their artillery nest. They do not move over the land with grace and horses like the children or dig out land mines with their fingers, and their position is not glorified with mythic overtones.

Emerging at the other side of its journey in a slow motion gallop toward Kabul palace, now ruined by foreign bombs and barbed wire, the movie appears as a near mystical pattern of winds, a portrait of an elusive world and a refreshingly different take on a troubled situation.

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Keswick Film Club won the Best New Film Society at the British Federation Of Film Societies awards in 2000.

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