Cable TV visits Cape Horn, Afghanistan. Grim record of war against Soviets
National Geographic Explorer: Afghanistan's Holy War WTBS/cable, Sunday, 8-9 p.m. Repeats Monday, 12:20 a.m., and Dec. 20, 9 a.m. Director/producer: Jeff B. Harmon. Cinematographer/coproducer: Alexander Lindsay. ``I do not make propaganda films; I show Afghanistan mujahideen as they really are, with all their noble and ignoble aspects,'' says director/producer Jeff B. Harmon in an interview about his latest film, ``Afghanistan's Holy War.''
He is reacting to my suggestion that, in picturing life behind the lines of the Muslim Jihad (holy war), he may be doing irreparable damage to the idealized Western image of the Afghan freedom fighters.
In Mr. Harmon's film, they are a tough and dangerous group of men, fighting for their very existence in the ways they know best. Many smoke hashish, cut off the hands of thieves, brutally execute prisoners, and look upon all non-Muslims distrustfully as infidels. It is a picture of harsh, grubby, shocking freedom-fighting, without any moments of relief.
``After all, you are dealing with a warrior nation - a race that has fought the armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and three separate wars with the British Empire. When they humilate the prisoner in my film, they call him a son of an English infidel, an archaic term.''
Harmon says he was obsessed by the Aghanistan-USSR battle because it is basically a fight between 19th-century holy warrior tribesmen and modern manpower, against seemingly impossible odds. He made half a dozen clandestine trips into Afghanistan. ``You cannot go in legally,'' he explains. ``One has to go under threat of death from the Soviets. The Soviet ambassador to Pakistan formally announced that any Western journalist captured in Afghanistan will be executed.''
``Most films about Afghanistan have been done from the perspective of Western correspondents who go in and ... make films about themselves in the war. I went in and made a film of the war as seen through the eyes of the holy warriors.
``You know,'' he says sadly, ``most people don't seem to realize that in the seven years since the Soviet invasion, over 1 million Afghans have been killed, over 3 million forced to flee the country.''
Why did the Soviets move into Afghanistan?
``One of the reasons they attacked was to prevent Muslim fundamentalism from entering Soviet Central Asia,'' Harmon says. ``From 1920 through 1935 the Soviets fought a war against their own Muslim population, and they are concerned about fundamentalism filtering in.''
This viewer wonders if, in victory, the Afghan Jihad might be as overbearing as their religious brethren in Iran, although most Iranian fundamentalists are Shiites, while Afghans are mostly Sunnis.
Harmon insists that if the Mujahideen are successful, they will return to their tolerant ways. ``But,'' he insists, ``it is wrong to approach the war from a Western viewpoint. I don't see the need to force either communism or a liberal Western model of democracy on an orthodox Muslim country. ... The holy warriors will interpret the Koran under their own form of government if they gain their freedom.''
But isn't he concerned that this form of government will be offensive to some Americans and some Muslims?
He shakes his head vigorously. ``I show the situation as it really is. If someone finds it offensive, then it is the reality that is offensive. I risked my life in the year I spent on this project. Should I try to anticipate the reactions of people in Paducah? Should I try to censor reality for them or what they consider to be proper?''
``Afghanistan's Holy War'' is certainly a major departure for ``National Geographic Explorer,'' which used to bill itself as an information program for the whole family. Many parents may want to be around when their youngsters view this one. Harmon would like the viewing audience to be moved by his film. ``I wanted to take a complex issue like Jihad and make it accessible, if not completely acceptable, to Western audiences. If only 15 minutes of reality come through that tube, I don't expect it to change anything. But if it gets people to think, it will have been worth doing.''