Life After War

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 06/11/03 19:58:41

"Have you ever had the feeling you're a lazy bastard?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2003 SEATTLE FILM FESTIVAL: I'll admit it. I didn't want to go. The Seattle fest was holding their 'secret festival' screening and I didn't want to miss out on a screening of the 1936 Hungarian classic "My Darling My Glockenspeil", but the doorgals do their job at this fest and I had no 'secret ticket' to speak of. "To hell with it then - it's doco time," I proclaimed as I strode across the street and took in a documentary that would occupy my eyes for the next 80 minutes, and my thoughts for far longer. Life After War is a piece of filmmaking that is guaranteed to make you wonder if you're doing enough as a concerned citizen of planet Earth. Me? I'm doing plenty, but I'm doing it on the inside.

Sarah Chayes studied the Middle East at Harvard University, served in the Peace Corps in Morocco, then established herself as one of the heavy hitters of US National Public Radio. She'd reported on events from all parts of the world, bringing hotspots from around the globe into the living rooms, cars and headphones of the people of the United States, but one day she had an epiphany.

The brother of Afghani President Kharmid Karzai asked her, "why not stop reporting on this and help us to rebuild instead?"

Why not indeed? Chayes had grown weary of the new McCarthyism in the American media, where any diversion from the government-authored press release is seen as heresy and newsroom bosses send out memos telling their staff what they can't report on, so she instead started a charity devoted to the rebuilding of Afghan homes blown up by American weaponry.

That in itself might make for an interesting, inspiring project. But when you throw in the reality of an American woman trying to order Afghani men around, you're about to witness an hour plus of cross-cultural pinball. Chayes, as much as she's well intentioned and educated, is a bull-headed go-getter, with little regard for diplomacy and no patience for foot-dragging. As she tries to help these people help themselves, she's hindered at every turn by bureaucracy (even though the government had barely been formed days earlier), corruption (that'd be the very same government), cultural differences ("the workers came, but they went home again") and belligerence ("If the rooms aren't seven metres long, I don't want the house").

The Afghan people are very different to the way we are. Come to think of it, Chayes herself is very different to the way we are. She's almost manic when she has a goal in her head, which is an admirable quality when you're a journalist, but perhaps not the most valuable commodity when you're a woman dressed in man's clothes in a nation that, until recently, covered their women from head to toe in a black cloth. Watching a male Afghan elder basically shamed into making a public backdown by this woman makes you wonder where all the Afghan women are, and what they think of all this. It makes you wonder if this 80-year-old has ever in his life been talked to by a woman like he's being talked to now. And it makes you wonder why Americans are doing the rebuilding that America is suposed to have been doing.

The documentary itself is a case of a good movie benefiting from a great topic. Some of the footage is very 'video' in appearance, which is admittedly to be expected when you're going into a region covered in sand and rocks and heat and war. The production is not sharp, the money's not up there on the screen and there is a definite lack of exploration of the 'new media rules', as well as where Chayes' charity group is headed now.

So be it.

The film is compelling stuff and the ordeals Chayes goes through are both funny, informative and dramatic. At any time, Chayes could have been taken out for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. The dramatic tension isn't manufactured - it's very real, and it doesn't end with the end of the film. Chayes could be looking down the barrel of a Russian-built sub-machine gun as you're reading this, because right now she's out there building a house for a homeless Afghani while you're stuffing your face with Tostitos, downloading porn and wondering when Futurama will next be on the telly.

If a lesson can be learned from Life After War, that lesson is that the world doesn't stop at an imaginary line that separates two countries. Just because a person is on the other side of that line doesn't mean we, as people, shouldn't care about what happens to them. If a documentary should be judged by the lasting impact it leaves on an audience, you can judge Life After War as among the better films of the genre. Now go out and do something for humanity, you lazy bastard.

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