Monday, May 6, 2024

Hollywoodgate reveals much more about Taliban-ruled Afghanistan than they may thought was possible (Film review)

Director-cinematographer-co-producer Ibrahim Nash'at and 
co-editor Atanas Georgiev at the post-screening Q&A
Hollywoodgate (Germany-U.S.A., 2023)
- Ibrahim Nash'at, director, cinematographer and co-producer
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Documentary Competition program
In recent years, film censorship has become more of a thing in Hong Kong than previously was the case.  Probably not coincidentally, we've seen a decrease in the number of Hong Kong films screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.  (After all, I can think of a number of Hong Kong films that, while screened overseas, no longer can be screened in Hong Kong -- including one that had its world premiere at Cannes in 2021.)      
At the same time, many films (still) can be screened in Hong Kong that can't be screened in the countries that their filmmakers hail from and/or they were shot.  I think of offerings by such as Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi (two of which -- This Is Not a Film (2012) and Closed Curtain (2013) -- I viewed at previous editions of the Hong Kong International Film Festival); and, among those screened this year, the likes of Tatami, and this documentary work by Egyptian director-cinematographer Ibrahim Nash'at chronicling daily life in Afghanistan after the Taliban returned to power there.
Hollywoodgate takes its name from a complex on the outskirts of Kabul previously occupied by the American military (or, it is speculated, CIA operatives).  Soon after the last American forces left Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban go in to see what's there -- and do so accompanied by Ibrahim Nash'at and his camera.
Granted permission to film in Afghanistan, albeit on pretty restricted terms, Ibrahim Nash'at's camera is officially trained for the most part on Mawlawi Mansour, a bushy-bearded Taliban commander who gets named as the Commander of the country's air force.  At great risk to his personal safety (threats to kill him if he misbehaves can be heard being issued by more than one Taliban member), Hollywoodgate's director-cinematographer also manages to capture a lot of other subjects in his frame.
Amazingly, Ibrahim Nash'at ended up managing to stay and film for a year in Afghanistan.  Over this time, one is able to see the Taliban evolve from guerillas to a more conventional military force; thanks in no small part to their reappropriation of an estimated US$7 billion worth of military equipment and supplie that the American forces left behind at complexes like Hollywood Gate.  (And while attempts were made to destroy equipment by the Americans, quite a bit of it were found to be repairable by the Afghans, including a rather alarming number of pretty impressive military aircraft -- transport helicopters, fighter jets, bombers, etc.)
Somewhere along the way, Ibrahim Nash'at also gained permission to film one of Mawlawi Mansour's junior soldiers, an officer named M.J. Mukhtar who, if anything, appears to have a stronger thirst for violence than his commander.  And also a looser cannon.  Yet the Egyptian documentary filmmaker stuck to spent time with him, including when M. J. Mukhtar drives around Kabul.  In so doing, he manages to film scenes from the car of everyday scenes, such as of people going about marketing -- which may be among the most chilling segments of Hollywoodgate thanks to the glimpses one gets of the terrible lot of women in the Taliban-controlled land.   

A the post-screening Q&A, Ibrahim Nash'at was asked if the Taliban had seen his documentary.  He replied that they had expressed no interest in doing so.  So the chances are that Hollywoodgate will never be screened in Afghanistan, and that probably is for the best.  As I could well imagine some members of the Taliban regretting his having been granted as much access as he was to film -- for what he managed to do is reveal a lot, a good bulk of which is chilling and also tragic indeed.
My rating for this film: 8.0.

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