On a sweltering Southern California evening last week, after braving rush-hour traffic from Los Angeles to Encino, Sharon and I viewed a screening of filmmaker Robert Greenwald’s unsettling “Rethink Afghanistan” with our friends from the Valley Democrats United Club.
Founder of Brave New Films, Greenwald is among the fullest flowering of the recent emergence of the citizen journalist, who built on his career as a mainstream television and film director and producer to create his own progressive media company. In the past decade, he has produced “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers,” “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,”and “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” among other documentary films and video clips. Key to his success has been his ability to find innovative ways to create and fund his work:
“Over the past couple of years, Greenwald has developed a ”guerrilla” method of documentary filmmaking, creating timely political films on short schedules and small budgets and then promoting and selling them on DVD through partnerships with grass-roots political organizations like MoveOn.org. The process, in addition to being swift, allows him to avoid the problems of risk-averse studios and finicky distributors.” (“How to Make a Guerrilla Documentary,” Robert S. Boynton, New York Times, July 11.)
Tuesday night’s film is a work in progress, which Greenwald is taking around the country to raise funds and drum up interest for its release later this summer in New York even as the final segments are being edited. In addition to the Encino showing, the film will screen this weekend in Westchester, hosted there by the Iraq Veterans Against the War, Westside Progressives, and the Culver City and LAX Area Democratic Clubs.
Segments of the film focus on the Afghan soldiers fighting for the various warring factions, the danger a destabilized and nuclear-powered Pakistan next door poses, and the staggering cost in lives and treasure of this almost eight-year-old war, told largely through a series of interviews Greenwald filmed in part in Kabul. Like other Western journalists, Greenwald could not stray from the Afghan capital; even there, highly organized kidnappings made filming dangerous. Reporting outside the major cities is done on contract from regional journalists or not at all. Still, the words and images Greenwald has captured rarely has matches from anything the mainstream media produces.
Most troubling perhaps were the final two segments completed so far, the first describing the many civilian casualties from American bombings and how that has turned Afghan public opinion back toward the Taliban. “Which would you rather have governing you?” Greenwald asked in the question-and-answer session that followed the screening. “A local nationalist despot or a foreign invader?”
The final segment explored the idea that America’s presence has liberated Afghan women, making their lives better and freer, which “Rethink Afghanistan” debunked with image after image of Afghan women and girls who had been disfigured and killed by beatings, burnings, and acid attacks at the hands of the Taliban for violating Medieval religious laws regarding their sexual conduct and freedom.
“The problem with Afghanistan is that nobody can tell us what our mission is at this point,” Greenwald said. “We’ve got 68,000 troops there. We’ll ultimately spend $1 trillion. We said were sending more troops to get the Al-Qaeda, but now General Petreaus tells us there are no Al-Qaeda, only Taliban. So what are we doing?”
The same question began to be asked during the Vietnam War. With 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, roughly 140,000 troops in Iraq, and another quarter million “contractors” doing what rear-area soldiers used to do – drive trucks, cook meals, clean latrines – we’re almost at the troop levels at the height of the Vietnam War. Moreover, as the many veterans of the Vietnam antiwar protests in the audience could attest, the current wars have also become deeply unpopular.
And yet, 70 or 80 well-meaning, well-entrenched activists gathered on a steamy, nostalgic night in The Valley to view an antiwar film is not the streets filled with protesters that helped end the Vietnam War, campuses in the late 1960s and early 70s overflowing with students demanding that we get “Out Now,” or war’s brutal senselessness televised into living rooms night after night with the nightly news. Sitting in that auditorium thick with nostalgia for another age, you’ve got to wonder where’s the passion beyond this room? Where’s today’s outrage? Where are the young people inflamed with the outrages of their elders?
By reaching out to progressive political groups, Greenwald hopes to bring some of that old time political pressure to bear. “If we can get 20 or 30 members of Congress educated and concerned about the Afghan War, we might gain traction,” he said. “So far, all our tactics have involved military solutions to political problems.”
Let’s hope it makes a difference.
Editor, LA Progressive