The Kochi tribe of northeastern Afghanistan inhabits some of the most rugged terrain in the world. The rocky hills of this region are gorgeous, but they’re barely arable, and the grassy plains below aren’t much better. Nearby, caverns that for 7,000 years have been mined for semiprecious lapis lazuli now contain something else: Soviet land mines. These explosives, dormant relics of the occupation, are carefully removed from the terrain above by child bandits and bartered to equally young miners for use in unearthing the gemstones. These gangs of armed Afghan preteen marauders, who often go on to steal those stones in dangerous ambushes, are at the center of “The Land of Enlightened,” one of the most stirring documentaries to screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which runs through Sunday.
Sundance’s world documentary competition, in which “The Land of Enlightened” is entered, routinely launches the most talked-about nonfiction films every year from around the globe. Spanning subjects from hair metal bands in Japan to competitive tickling in Australia and political repression in Iran to settler expansionism in the West Bank, the selection provides a cross-section of films, most of which are dedicated to unusual or underreported stories in some of the world’s most troubled regions.
Among them is “The Lovers and the Despot,” which tells the bizarre story of the kidnapping by the North Korean government of South Korean movie star Choi Eun-hee and her husband, director Shin Sang-ok. They were abducted by Kim Jong Il’s agents in the late 1970s and forced into cinematic slavery of sorts by Kim, a noted cinephile, who charged them with improving North Korean cinema. They did so by making expensive propaganda films, which often had a nuance, style and attention to character previously not allowed in North Korean films. On one of many secret recordings made by Choi, Kim is heard complaining that North Korean films never play at Cannes.
With an aesthetic that evokes paranoiac thrillers from the 1970s — its interviews are dimly lit and interspersed with images of reel-to-reel tape recorders playing illicit audio in dark locations — the film’s style is immediately gripping. Directed by Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, “The Lovers and the Despot” is built largely around a single long interview with Choi, along with copious remarkable archival footage, including scenes of North Korean society and clips from the films she and Shin made during their South Korean heyday and in North Korean captivity. The movie works as an international thriller and a love story, with a fair amount of humor and irony; although Shin wasn’t pleased to be in captivity in North Korea, he made much of his best work for Kim, who lavished Shin with resources he was never able to access when working in the capitalist production systems of South Korea and the U.S. They escaped North Korea in 1986. He continued his career in Hollywood and is best-known in the U.S. for producing the “Little Ninja” series in the 1990s.
Perhaps the most viscerally affecting film in the competition is “Plaza de la Soledad,” a portrait of the sisterhood among a set of Mexico City prostitutes, many of whom would be collecting Social Security checks if only they lived 400 miles to the north. Carmen, 68, the linchpin of the group, prays to God that the women won’t be attacked by johns or the police. Dramatic accounts of violence — such as one woman’s description of how she became a prostitute shortly after being raped as an 8-year-old — are often staged like confessions and are interspersed throughout an otherwise warm and easygoing vérité film, in which director Maya Goded treats her subjects with great dignity. While she never portrays the women in the midst of their trade, she also never lets us forget real and present dangers that the prostitutes face, including disease and abusive johns who stalk La Merced, a district of Mexico City that is a tolerance zone for prostitution. There, cops look the other way, both from the trade and from the danger that workers face.
Goded zeros in on five women, ranging in age from late 40s to early 80s: Carmen, still very alluring in her late 60s, looks after many of the younger prostitutes, including Lupe, who suffers from the double whammy of being newly homeless and having a child to raise. Lety has a boyfriend in his 80s who helps support her daughter as she battles cancer. Esther and Ángeles, in a clandestine relationship for 14 years, share a love that they keep mostly private, guarding it from their sex work. Raquel, the oldest and frailest of them, yearns for someone to love in life, both in and out of her bed.
“Plaza de la Soledad” softens the blow of their harrowing stories with humor, leavening what can feel like series of grim tales of woe. Goded doesn’t provide false hope, and most of her subjects don’t seem to want it; they know their lot in life and have gained expertise from plying their trade on La Merced. The level of intimate access and candor exhibited in the documentary reflects the remarkable amount of trust between the director and her subjects. Goded, who was a photographer of much acclaim before she made the leap into cinema, has been focusing on La Merced’s forgotten citizens for 23 years, and many of the women in the film have appeared in her photography. The frankness with which the women speak about the sex trade — in one unnerving, oddly humorous discussion, a prostitute talks about controlling her orgasms only to allow herself release at the end of a long workday with someone she is really attracted to — are clearly the result of their relationships with Goded over a long time.
The myths and rituals that these women indulge in, whether tarot or faith healing, act as a sort of protection from the cruelty of their world. Raquel, a spitfire who keeps keys in her bra to defend herself from cancer, dons a wig after being told by a mystic that it will keep at bay those who wish her ill. The film never belittles or critiques such beliefs, and that this is notable is not just a credit to Goded but also a reflection of how accustomed many viewers are to the exoticism that pervades so much documentary cinema made by Westerners about the so-called third world.
The same might be said of “The Land of Enlightened,” although one cannot be sure the extent to which these children are being exploited. First-time director Pieter-Jan De Pue also came to cinema by way of photography, and he spent seven years hauling 16-millimeter film canisters through the hills of Afghanistan while embedded with child gangs and American troops. He blends fiction and documentary in his depiction of the region, though he doesn’t own up to it in the film.
“The Land of Enlightened” runs right into the argument that has surrounded documentary aesthetics and authenticity since “Nanook of the North.” The film’s artistry is incredible; its ethics, less clear. Watching the children delicately remove a land mine from a barren landscape or rob a diamond merchant as he crosses the terrain, one first wonders how much De Pue has affected events with his mere presence. When the gangs roam the region’s plateaus, raiding deserted Russian outposts, one is encouraged to question how the footage was acquired. Although you’d never know it from watching the film, all the children are nonprofessional actors impersonating the kids De Pue met during his years in Afghanistan.
Unlike Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” or Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” “The Land of Enlightened” neglects to signal that what we are seeing is re-enacted. And as we watch the gang members gin up food, arms and opium however they can, it becomes increasingly difficult to suspend disbelief. De Pue juxtaposes the children’s exploits with glimpses of U.S. forces at rest and at war. In an ironic echo of the Afghan child bandits, adolescent American troops are seen shelling sites along a valley in glee and rage, profanity spewing and weapons blasting. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, an American service member plays a melancholy guitar riff as a young Afghan freedom fighter relates, via a poetic voiceover, his hopes for Afghanistan once the Americans leave and his belief that the country will remain at war as long as outsiders seek to tame it.
Documentary filmmaking has undergone a revolution in the 27 years since Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” took the Sundance Film Festival by storm. Since then, the number of people making documentary films has increased exponentially, and the reach of documentaries, mostly thanks to cable television and Internet streaming, has expanded even more. Sundance remains one of the few international brands that champion the intersection of artistry and journalism and push the form in ways meant to provoke. Here’s hoping the festival keeps at it.