We spoke to director Pieter-Jan de Pue at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest about his hybrid documentary film The Land of the Enlightened, which follows the lives of children and soldiers living in Afghanistan. Packed with powerful images of war and glorious magical realist fantasy sequences, de Pue’s film was one of a number of boundary-stepping docs in the 2016 line-up.
What was your journey to becoming a filmmaker, from your studies onwards?
When I was at college, around 2000 when I was graduating, we had to make small short films for a media class. We just had to improvise together with some people from our class; one was a writer, one a cameraman, some actors as well. That was the first time that I was in touch with a video camera, and I really liked it. I felt that telling a story with image was something that was unique and I felt very comfortable with it. My teacher at that time was saying ‘why are you not going to the national film school?’. I went there the same year but I found that some of those teachers were a bit pretentious or a bit arrogant. I was like ‘woah – if this is cinema making, I guess it’s not going to be for me’. So I held off and said I was going to travel. Finally I went to film school but I took a year off, and I started working for Volvo. I worked for them for a few months and then I travelled to the Middle East, to Jordan, to Israel, Palestine and Egypt. I had a photo camera with me. I started taking pictures all over Israel, and it was the time that the second Intifada was happening. I was very young at that time, nineteen or something. After four or five months I suddenly remembered that the entry exams for the film school were going to happen, and so I just took the plane back from Basra after four months, went straight back to Brussels and took the entrance examinations. I showed them my pictures that I took in the West Bank and two weeks later I was going to film school.
I chose classical, narrative filmmaking but at the same time I also felt very close to photography so I kept on taking pictures. I travelled to the Amazon area and stayed a long time with tribal indigenous people. This was the basis of my graduation project, a short film that I made there afterwards.
During my studies we were located very close to the national television channel, and I met a lot of journalists there who were in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a very hot topic at that time. Lots of people were writing articles about it, books about it. I was in touch with Robert Fisk, the British journalist. I said that after I graduated I would go to Afghanistan, again as a photographer. In the same way that I did the Middle East and the Amazon area, I wanted to explore Afghanistan. I just wanted to know the culture in this part of the world. I knew that travelling in Afghanistan would be very complicated – it was a country at war, there was no tourism at all, there was anarchy. I was in touch with a lot of humanitarian organisations and I said ‘look guys, I just graduated from film school, I know how to take pictures but have no experience, so can we make a deal that I’ll take pictures for you for free, and in return you give me accommodation, transportation, you guide me around?’. I worked this way for two years, going home and coming back to Afghanistan, and while I was working with this organisation I discovered all of these small stories, how kids were surviving the war, which became the basis of the script of the film. But the idea to make a film came afterwards; the first steps were not ‘I’m going to make a film here’. After two years I had enough information, I had all the ingredients to make a film.
It is interesting that your background was in classical fiction, narrative cinema. This film obviously contains certain narrated aspects. Were there any particular artistic inspirations that influenced this film? Especially with the kids towards the end it is almost magical realism.
When I was working with those kids, seeing how they were surviving on a daily basis, I discovered that they had many dreams. For example, the storyline of Gholam Nasir, who wants to become the king of Afghanistan and live in a palace and marry a beautiful queen, came from a boy who told me ‘yeah, when the American’s leave I’m going to become the king’. I found many stories, similar kind of dreamy, fantasy stories, from the kids in Afghanistan. I knew from the beginning that the challenge would be to visualise these dreams, and I knew that we were going to end up in a hybrid structure – I wanted to show the war and the harsh reality in Afghanistan but on another level we wanted to dive into their imagination. From the beginning we knew that it was going one step beyond, beyond the reality in Afghanistan. That was my biggest source of inspiration. I didn’t want to make another film showing the clichés of Afghanistan; the war, the weapons traffic, the Taliban. I wanted to show a more beautiful side, a more poetic side. These Afghans are human beings as well.
What was it like living with the US military in the camp on the hill? Were there times when it was just incredibly boring?
Yeah, sure! That’s also, I think, something that we wanted to show in the film. It was not only fighting. Fighting was between 9 and 11 o’clock in the morning every time, because that’s when everybody finishes breakfast, the Taliban as well, and they start firing at each other. No really! Then after 11 the sun is getting high and it is getting too hot to fight. Most of the time those guys were doing nothing. They mainly had to watch. This was creating a lot of interesting moments. I didn’t want to judge, like ‘okay, the Americans are bad and the kids are good’ – I’m not interested in all this. What I wanted to tell was about the great misunderstanding between the two parties. Not only the kids towards the Americans or the Americans towards the kids but the Afghan society, what they expect from the Americans and what the Americans expect from them in general. Those guys were stationed for fifteen months on a mountain top just watching into a valley, trying to imagine what was happening in the village, and what the kids were doing with the brass [the soldier traded old bullet casings for food] and how these people live. The kids were doing the same. They were listening to the radio where Barack Obama says ‘okay, we’re going to withdraw’ but they were never in touch directly with the Americans so they were trying to imagine, they were projecting ideas. These reflections on each other were something we really wanted to work out in the film.
You shot in 16mm for practical reasons, as film cameras don’t need charging like digital cameras do, but given that you wanted to make something ‘beyond a documentary’, is there something about 16mm, or celluloid in general, which adds this dimension to the film?
Definitely. The look of 16mm is so organic and it’s also a bit rough, but at the same time the colours are also very beautiful. The grain goes very well with the harsh reality in Afghanistan, and that’s why we didn’t choose to shoot on 35mm. 35mm would be too pure and too crisp. The 16mm, the unpredictability of the kids and the harsh world all go well together.