The Network, Eva Orner’s profile of the Afghani media powerhouse MOBY Group, largely glosses over the thornier issues of running a TV and radio company in Afghanistan. The result is an uncritical, drama-free documentary that comes uncomfortably close to resembling a business-magazine puff piece. Interviews with the company’s Western management are intercut with workplace footage that serves only to illustrate how important their leadership is to their Afghani employees; when outside commentators appear on-screen, it’s to offer testimonials on the company’s behalf. The narrative put forward by the film—that Tolo TV, MOBY’s flagship brand, is important because it reflects Afghanistan’s aspirations—would be easier to swallow if most of Orner’s interviewees weren’t on the channel’s payroll, if she’d bothered to talk to any of Tolo TV’s viewers, or if the television clips shown didn’t look like escapist fluff.
There’s a second, less baldly stated narrative that runs through the film: the idea that Afghanis are unfit to manage themselves. Crew members run off, producers get into fist fights with bystanders, expensive equipment is destroyed; the only things that can save Afghanistan from itself, The Network says, are venture capitalism and American military presence. (The film’s final 10 minutes are taken up with pleas for U.S. troops to remain.)
Because most of Tolo TV’s higher-ups don’t speak Pashto, its production meetings have to be conducted in English; when company founder Saad Mohseni, an Australian-raised investment banker, speaks about how running Tolo TV will provide an important learning experience for his management—as though the company were a summer camp or a food drive—it comes off as more than a little patronizing. Whenever The Network does acknowledge some of Tolo TV’s rougher edges—such as its close ties to the police, or the fact that it routinely broadcasts government propaganda—it either lets the channel’s bosses explain them away as issues of cultural difference, or changes the subject. After acknowledging that much of Tolo’s content is profoundly sexist, for instance, the filmsegues into a segment about what a great workplace it is for women.
The Network’s problem is, ultimately, a lack of filmmaking perspective: It isn’t observing MOBY Group so much as relaying the narratives the company has constructed for itself. (It doesn’t help that Orner appears to have interviewed most of her subjects only once, and during working hours.) Regardless of whether these narratives are true, it’s hard to be very compelled or convinced by something so transparently one-sided.