Massoud, The Afghan

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Massoud, The Afghan

For more than 20 years, Ahmed Shah Massoud led a skilled band of Afghan resistance fighters, first against the Soviets and later against the Taliban. He organized a miniature society—with currency, courts, and schools—to provide a legitimate alternative to whomever he was fighting against. On Sept. 9, 2001, Massoud was assassinated, two days before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Some have speculated that the incidents were related, and that al Qaeda intended to knock out potential U.S. ground support in Afghanistan before launching its own assault. Christophe de Ponfilly's documentary Massoud, The Afghan doesn't probe those questions, because de Ponfilly finished shooting his movie in 1998, but Massoud's belated U.S. release is undoubtedly due to the current conflict in Afghanistan and Massoud's key role as an opponent of the Taliban. It's especially disappointing, then, that de Ponfilly's work does so little to explain the Afghan political climate. The French documentarian has been shooting footage in Afghanistan since 1981, making a couple of films that helped spread Massoud's legend around the world, and for Massoud, The Afghan, de Ponfilly openly questions the effect of his work. Assembling images from 17 years of visits to the rebel's camps and battlefields, the director contemplates the gap between his own youthful admiration for a courageous warrior and his newly minted skepticism that violence is going to resolve any problems. That goal is fine: He asks difficult questions as he ponders how one international conflict dissolves into another, with plenty of weapons left over to escalate civil disputes. But de Ponfilly is mostly talking to himself. When he gives Massoud a letter requesting an on-camera answer to the question "How is it possible to fight a war for 19 years without losing sight of everything?," a contemplative Massoud smiles and asks the director, through an interpreter, to come back and see him when the fighting is finally over. A series of non-answers isn't enough to build a documentary on, especially when they're strung together by insufferably self-congratulatory voiceover narration (de Ponfilly plays up his agony over whether documentary filmmaking helps or hurts its subjects) and corny stylistic effects (de Ponfilly adds a clacking projector sound to his Super-8 footage for no good reason). And though it may be worthwhile to get a ground-level look at Afghanistan and one of its greatest heroes, the charismatic Massoud was one of the most widely photographed people in Afghan history, with his own videographer tracking his political and military campaigns. A fascinating documentary may be made when those tapes surface, assuming they're edited by someone who wants to make a movie about Afghanistan, instead of about his own showy angst.

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