“Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin” is the awkward title for an awkward yet frequently compelling Italian documentary on the humanitarian catastrophe created by the civil war in Afghanistan. Filmed in 1999, the film is only now receiving a belated U.S. theatrical release after pinballing around the festival circuit and European TV.
“Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin” follows two Italian filmmakers, Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati, who join an elder Italian journalist named Ettore Mo in a journey to northern Afghanistan. The three Italians meet a fourth paisan in Gino Strada, who is in Afghanistan to build a front-line hospital to treat the victims of the long-running war. After clearing permission from Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Mujaheddin leader who was ejected from the Afghan presidency by the Taliban in 1996 but who is still recognized universally as the country’s true leader, construction on the hospital begins. Amid the carnage of the civil war, with a surplus number of patients maimed by land mines, the hospital remains in operation.
In case you are wondering who the Mujaheddin are, they are the Northern Alliance who the recently kicked the Taliban out of Kabul after the U.S. bombing raids. To its immense discredit, the film conspicuously ignores the Mujaheddin’s long and well-documented history of thuggery and egregious human rights violations and fails to call to attention how the social system (let alone the health care system) in Afghanistan collapsed under their rule in the years between the departure of Soviet occupying troops and the rise of the Taliban rule (which most Afghans originally accepted, vainly believing the mad mullahs could bring stability).
The film also wastes precious time focusing on the Italian filmmakers and their running commentaries; these men are crashing bores on camera and should have stayed behind the lens. It may have also helped if the filmmakers jettisoned Mario Crispi’s bombastic score and completely avoided flashy, art camera tricks that occasionally give the film a wholly inappropriate music video style. (And note to the person doing the subtitles: there is no “E” in Taliban.)
But to its credit, “Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin” brings home harrowing images of people living in the most brutal circumstances imaginable. The frontline hospital is primitive by Western standards, but it provides emergency care that would challenge any sophisticated ER. Scenes of burn victims being treated, children mangled by land mines and lethally ill men, women and children lying in states of helplessness and hopelessness are crushing to the mind and soul. Likewise, the tours of the poverty-thick Afghan villages where women encased in ragged burkas beg for food and money can break any heart.
“Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin” was originally presented at a time when most Americans were more intrigued by Bill and Monica’s wacky White House romps than by the human rights crisis in a distant land. While the film is admittedly imperfect, it nonetheless deserves to be seen by all Americans to provide a clear understanding of what kind of a country we are currently at war within.