All things considered, you’d have to say that war photographers are all a bit mad. I mean, what sort of person chooses to jump into the crucible of human conflict not to fight, but to document the fighting? Surely no one with a firm grasp on the handles of sanity would fling themselves into the hurly burly of war armed with a camera while the men and women around them carried assault rifles. If war is indeed hell, then I suppose photojournalists are the ones who journey down into the molten maw of the underworld so that the rest of us can try to understand what goes on there. But those of us who have never seen the grim-visaged face of war in the flesh can never appreciate and comprehend what it must be like to live with it as your constant companion. I can look at a thousand pictures depicting the rough realities of war and, while I may see it with my eyes, I will no more understand it than someone with healthy brain chemistry will understand mental illness because they saw One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
At the beginning of Kandahar Journals, Canadian photojournalist Louie Palu expresses these doubts as he shows us footage of a gallery opening of some of his work in Washington DC. In this sterilized environment, with patrons walking around with little plastic party cups of red wine and bottles of Yuengling in their hands, the images Palu risked his life to take feel out of place, like a donor heart in a foreign body. “After 5 years of working in Kandahar, I’m not sure any of my work connects to anyone,” he tells us. “How can I possibly convey the reality of war through words and pictures?” The simple answer is that he can’t. However, in the attempt, Kandahar Journals comes as close as anything I have seen or read to providing the outside world with a glimpse of what it was to be embedded with coalition forces during the War in Afghanistan.
If the old adage holds true that war can be characterized as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror and excitement, it’s safe to say that Kandahar Journals, does an excellent job of encapsulating the emotional tenor of war. That’s not to say that any parts of the film are boring—they are not—but to point out that Palu and co-director Devin Gallagher do a good job of capturing the nervous lulls and minutiae of the War in Afghanistan. Sure, the film contains plenty of scenes that, whether through video footage of attacks on purported Taliban strongholds on the outskirts of Kandahar City or still photographs of the horrendous aftermath of a suicide bombing, depict the sturm und drang of armed conflict, but it is in the moments of tense quiet and exhaustion that Kandahar Journals shines.
Like the war itself, there isn’t much of a formal narrative to Kandahar Journals. Palu does his best to lay out the nuts and bolts of the conflict, providing an overview of the region’s unique geography and sociopolitical construction through both interview and explication, but one is left with little in the way of understanding. The missions that Palu takes us on in the film are little more than segments of a mobius strip of counterinsurgent damage control. Regardless of whether coalition forces are charged with storming a village and apprehending an Afghani citizen suspected of aiding the enemy or tracking down a cache of insurgent weapons hidden in a grape vineyard, their actions are simply described as being “combat operation[s] to disrupt the Taliban.” Of course, there are moments where Kandahar Journals crescendos into high drama—most notably during a gruesome scene at a military field hospital towards the end of the film—but there are no great victories. For Palu and the soldiers he was embedded with, their successes in the field were akin to a man finally managing to dump all of the water in his leaky boat out into the sea. He might stay dry for a little while, but it wouldn’t be long before the water was lapping at his ankles and he’d be forced to start chucking the water overboard again.
Counterintuitively, some of the most powerful images in the film take place not in Afghanistan, but back in the United States. “I am over 100 years old,” Palu tells us in the film, reading from one of his titular journals as we watch him get ferried about in a DC Metro car with a thousand yard stare of the psychically drained draped across his face. “I stare at the road and dirt, and it makes more sense than the people around me. I have aged faster and more in 5 years than in a lifetime.” In these quiet moments, whether he’s riding the Metro or photographing a Congressional hearing on the War in Afghanistan, you can see the price Palu paid for the images he captured and the film he created. And perhaps that, more than anything, is what can be gleaned from this film. Yes, Kandahar Journals is a documentary about the exhausting, yet exhilarating experiences that come along with covering and waging the War in Afghanistan, but it is just as much about the emotional letdown that occurs when soldiers and correspondents come home to a society that barely acknowledges the existence of the one thing that has consumed them for years. I will probably never know what it is like to experience war up close as either a combatant or a correspondent, but I will continue to have run-ins and relationships with men and women who do. Kandahar Journals might not allow me to understand what it’s like to serve in war, but it certainly helps me to be of service to those who have.
Kandahar Journals is directed and produced by Louie Palu in association with the documentary Channel. The film was co-directed by Devin Gallagher and written by Murray Brewster. For more information the film, check out their website. Currently, there is only 1 US showing planned, but hopefully that will change. Info about that show can be found below:
United States PREMIERE
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
November 7, 2015 at 3:00 pm
East Building Large Auditorium
Admission will be free.