First published at BIKYAMASR
At the end of August 2011, a short documentary was screened at the Ramadan Majlis of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the United Arab Emirates.
That this is how the film began its career with the public is hardly surprising, for what we are dealing with here is a self-produced documentary film about the work of the armed forces of United Arab Emirates in Afghanistan since 2003.
No doubt a measure of caution about the practice of institutional film is very much in place. Short documentaries of this sort are produced on a daily basis by government agencies, corporations and political organizations with the aim to persuade, promote an agenda or ultimately sell something.
In the Middle East, even though the practice of institutional film as a vehicle of propaganda is not too sophisticated, as it was under totalitarian regimes in Europe, it is not entirely unheard of:
In Syria in 2003, a private film company created a 29-part TV series Ash-Shatat (“The Diaspora”) originally aired in Lebanon in 2003 and broadcasted by Al-Manar (a network owned by Hezbollah). The series is based on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and shows the Jewish people as engaging in a conspiracy to rule the world, presenting them as people who murder Christian children, drain their blood and use it to make unleavened bread.
Other less egregious examples come to mind, for example when in 2008 Yemen’s Interior Ministry sponsored the production of “The Losing Bet”, a film produced by Fadl al-Olfi, to educate the public about the dangers of Islamist extremism. The film follows the fictional story of two Yemeni jihadists who return from abroad, sent by Al Qaeda to recruit new members and carry out terror attacks in Yemen.
The truth is that the use of films as vehicles of propaganda is nothing exclusive of totalitarian or authoritarian regimes, and it has been widely used in democratic countries: The earliest pioneer in this field was the “Committee on Public Information”, an independent agency of US government that existed from 1917 to 1919, and made use of every medium available – including movies – to promote war efforts and enlist public support for American participation in World War I.
“Mission: Winds of Goodness” on the other hand, is very surprising a documentary not only in the technical aspect but because of the human voice – rarely found in documentaries – with which the story of the Emirati armed forces in Afghanistan is told and because of its visual sobriety, all of which fall short of the usual format of the institutional documentary and aim at the kind of atmosphere that is found more in commercial television than in documentaries.
Directed by David Eberts and Khaled bin Lahej Al Falasi, and filmed both in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates, “Mission: Winds of Goodness” is not the kind of epic warmongering tale, circumscribed to the usual narrative that war is the continuation of politics by other means and it resorts to no heroic or agonistic narrative to justify military intervention as a political principle, but rather, highlights the work behind the scenes of the UAE armed forces in delivering humanitarian aid and fostering development in remote regions, particularly in the town of Maruf, in the province of Kandahar.
The kind of war and conflict journalism that was so harshly criticized by Susan Sontag in “Regarding the pain of others”, seems to be entirely absent from this film: “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists.
Wars are now also living room sights and sounds. Information about what is happening elsewhere, called “news,”, features conflict and violence – “If it bleeds, it leads” runs the venerable guideline of tabloids and twenty-four-hour headline news shows – to which the response is compassion, or indignation, or titillation, or approval, as each misery heaves into view.”
There is little journalistic about the film, and though there is a narrator – in this case, the voice of Michael Ironside – one could easily think that it is more a narrative film than a traditional documentary, enhanced by an excellent cinematography blended in with personal stories of Afghans and soldiers.
And this is of particular interest when we bring up the images, documentaries and reports that have appeared in recent years in Western media related to Afghanistan. It is not only the vast majority of documentaries that have lived up to each and every word implied by Sontag’s criticism of war journalism, but also the written reportages, including those that appeared in the all-time famous Rolling Stone:
In June 2010, the famous and long interview of Michael Hastings with General Stanley McCrystal about the failure of American policy in Afghanistan, and then the extremely graphic report of Mark Boal in March 2011, that brought in full view the war crimes perpetrated by American soldiers on the Afghan people that offered very little commentary to match the brutality of the images displayed.
It is not that images of war as such can or should be censored – and the developments in the course of Arab Spring have shown that this is no longer possible – but it remains still true that in order to differentiate story-telling in journalism and films of any kind from reality, it is also necessary the safeguard the dignity of the participants involved.
The subtleties of respecting human dignity while reporting is what differentiates an opinion and meditation – which journalism and documentary always expounds – from an unmediated exposure to pornography of violence, by means of which, instead of increasing sensibility and awareness, the possibility of developing any sensibility whatsoever is stolen from the public.
The greatest example of this was not necessarily the Rolling Stone reports from Afghanistan but what took place in Iraq in 2003 with the photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by Americans in the infamous Abu Ghraib. No matter the extent and gravity of the tortures demonstrably inflicted, it was possible for policy-makers to focus not on the moral disaster represented in them but in the complex process of dissemination of images, or in the words of Sontag: “The distinction between photograph and reality – as between spin and policy – can easily evaporate. And this is what the administration wishes to happen.”
Mere images and loyal reproductions of violence suffice to shock the public but do not lead anyone into having second thoughts. It is precisely here that “Mission: Winds of Goodness” is a very successful experiment in telling the story of something as politically controversial as intervention in Afghanistan without one single mutilated body, ransacked village, pond of blood or severed limb, as it is often the case with images of war in Western media and film – fictive and otherwise.
It is also the case that prior to this film, it was little known that another Muslim country – the UAE, and also in 2010 it was reported that 125 troops from Bahrain had been deployed to the Helmand province of Afghanistan – also participated in the military intervention and this brings up a whole new set of questions that challenge the binary opposition between West and East with which the whole discourse of military intervention and the war on terror is plagued since the very beginning.
This calls into question an incident from May 2011, when several media outlets reported that in November 2010, dozens of Colombian mercenaries were brought into the UAE by Erik Prince, founder of an infamous private security company, Blackwater Worldwide. At the time it was rumored that the UAE was gathering a private army to defend its own interests, keeping an eye on Iran and preventing a local uprising such as the one that took place in Bahrain.
According to some reports, former employees of Mr. Prince, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that in recruiting the Colombians and others from all over the world, Mr. Prince had instructed his subordinates to follow an strict rule not to hire Muslims because according to them, Mr. Prince had warned them that Muslim soldiers could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims.
The story, interesting as it is, could be if not disproven, at least challenged by the public knowledge of Emirati participation in Afghanistan, in which of course, casualties have been reported and the soldiers have been targets of explosive devices planted in the area by the Taliban.
It is then no surprise that as much as the mercenary tale received immediate attention by a great deal of Western media, the documentary film did not receive any, and the book, released on January 1 2012, called “The Mission: Winds of Goodness”, a 224-page book, both in Arabic and English, chronicling UAE’s participation in the international operations in Afghanistan, and other parts of the world, is likely to receive as little attention.
The film captures some essential moments of the Emirati mission, for example the ability of draw trust in the local communities because of the shared Islamic heritage at the same time that it highlights the difficulties in extracting information from local informants in regard to threats and explosive devices, no less than Westerners would do.
The image that it paints is perhaps a little too rosy and difficult to match with the reality of the headlines coming out of Afghanistan on a daily basis, however, it is very viable as a film because it is not a vulgar exploitation of war and in it, nothing surfaces more prominently than the Afghan human stories that deserve to be heard without being strip of dignity and thrown into an abject superfluous state, the way in which contemporary journalism loves to expose them.
It represents an innovation in the unpopular genre of institutional documentaries of war and conflict and while it does not capture the controversial nature of Emirati presence in Afghanistan, it does shatter some myths about the relationship of the oil-rich emirate to the world around it and in doing that, it poses an extreme challenge to the traditional narratives of East and West or democratic and un-democratic.
Clearly the United Arab Emirates is not necessarily a text-book case for Western democracy, but documentaries such as “Mission: Winds of Goodness” give an indication of how the contemporary globalized world is a complex map of more or less authoritarian and more or less liberalized tendencies.
These tendencies can go in one direction or the other at a given time or another, and values such as “democratic” or “authoritarian” can be no longer held as absolute or sacrosanct. Every country, Western or not, is a mixture of those tendencies, influenced by the politics of the day, and filming its own history, each time differently.