First a warning: It’s pretty much impossible to check your politics at the door when you watch certain films. That’s certainly true with this documentary featurette. I’m an opinionated guy and those opinions will come through….
At the opening of “Afghanistan: From Ground Zero to Ground Zero,” Masuda Sultan may seem like a perfectly ordinary young American woman, even a little bit immature. Actually, she’s made of tougher stuff than most of us. A 23 year-old whose family migrated to New York city following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, she has a deep connection to the land of her birth, but is also a New Yorker through-and through. When 9/11 destroys one of her city’s best known landmarks and nearly 3,000 people along with it, Sultan is devastated both by the tragedy at home and the destruction that will surely follow it in the land of her birth. Against the advice of her family, she decides to return to a homeland she hasn’t seen in decades with a small video crew. She has an inkling of what she’s going to find, but it’s impossible to fully prepared.
What Sultan finds there won’t make people on the far sides of the right or the left particularly comfortable. On the one hand, it’s pretty clear that getting rid of the massively repressive Taliban is a wonderful thing. Sultan sees a country made newly vibrant as music and secular culture are no longer forbidden, though it not as if Kandahar has suddenly turned into a Middle Eastern version of the Big Apple. Survival is far from easy, and most women still wear the burkas that cover their faces but now it’s now more of a socially coerced fashion choice, not an edict imposed on pain of death.
On the other hand, Sultan’s own family has been forced to pay the ultimate price. Nineteen of her relatives are now dead, reportedly killed by a low-flying United States helicopter — low flying enough that the gunners should have been able to see that they were shooting unarmed farmers and their wives and children, not Al Quaeda or Taliban fighters. One cousin has lost his wife and several children, leaving him with one son and visible wellsprings of rage.
Still, at 23, Sultan is more mature than many U.S. activists who might simply assume that our soldiers and their commanders are little more battle-crazed killbots. Instead, she is able to gain entry to a base, thank the soldiers for ridding her country of the Taliban, and politely question one of them about the destruction of her family’s village.
He has no clue why 41 women, children and men were slaughtered. Could be special forces, the soldier offers, but any further answers will have to come from the Department of Defense. Ms. Sultan is smart enough to know that she’s not going to get a direct answer from Don Rumsfeld’s D.O.D. She returns to the bigger picture.
What we’re ultimately left with is a strong sense of the individuals who are subjected to the rampaging historical forces unleashed by 9/11. The Afghan people have a reputation for friendliness and kindness to strangers, and that’s amply demonstrated here, alongside a visit to the ruins of the palatial home once belonging to corrupt Taliban chieftain Mullah Omar.
We also meet some warlords, and their “security” forces which they loan out to the video crew at extortionate prices and who prove to be quite affable, if less than expert marksmen. This is all against the background of some genuinely stunning desert terrain and even some likable camels, well captured by Producer Jon Alpert and crew.
The saddest thing about “From Ground Zero to Ground Zero” is that, with a foreign policy that is utterly uninterested in nation-building but utterly adept at nation-destroying, the Afghanistan that Masuda Sultan and Jon Alpert show us from last year is likely far worse off now than it was a year ago. That’s good news for Al Quaeda and very bad news for humanity.