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10.10.09

Can This Film Save Afghanistan?

It took documentarian Robert Greenwald 40 years to become an activist, but it was worth the wait, writes Gail Sheehy—his new film about Afghanistan is a clarion call for peace.

Many of us who marched against the Vietnam War 40 years ago have a terminal case of déjà vu over Afghanistan as we blunder into our ninth year of bombing and occupation. More than 90 percent of U.S. funding there goes to military purposes, and we still aren’t winning hearts or minds. Our Nobel Prize-winning president promised to “forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan,” but so far he has only threatened to escalate our troop level by tens of thousands.

In the film, Greenwald and his team ask Afghans themselves if American troops are making them safer. The answers are no, no, no, a thousand times no.

So thank goodness for documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald, a latter-day saint in my book. It took Greenwald 40 years to figure out how to be the activist he was not during Vietnam. But he’s making up for lost time by getting us to rethink what’s going on in Afghanistan.

Greenwald was born into the back end of the Silent Generation, in 1943. Despite being raised in the hot pink sandbox of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he joined a common fraternity for boomers in college—those whose only resistance was to the draft.

Greenwald went on to a successful career in Hollywood, having made more than 50 movies, including a documentary about the 1972 Olympics, 21 Hours in Munich, and The Burning Bed, starring Farrah Fawcett. His latent activism didn’t surface until three events coincided: the September 11 attacks, his father’s death, and his own arrival in middle age. “I was very well compensated for my work in commercial film and TV,” says Greenwald. He could afford to take up a mission of social change. He launched Brave New Films in 2006 to make bold documentaries by accepting donations for funding and taking no compensation.

Greenwald finally made it to Vietnam in December 2008. At the ripe age of 65, he took his second wife and four children and his brother’s family for the Christmas holidays. The aha! moments for him came after touring the infamous Vietcong tunnels and returning to his hotel to read comments from the Obama transition team about their new counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan. Then he’d pore over his copy of The Best and the Brightest, the David Halberstam classic about our Vietnam strategy, comparing the rhetoric of Vietnam to Obama’s.

“I’d underline like a lunatic and read the quotes to my family,” he says. “They were almost word for word the same.”

Last January, few were talking about the war in Afghanistan as a looming disaster. Barack Obama walked on water back then and Greenwald saw the press paddling right behind him. He began raising money to make a documentary called Rethink Afghanistan. Major funders warned him to stop. He didn’t. Some pulled out. Determined to continue, Greenwald made his film one video section at a time, shaking the tambourine for money to make the next video, putting it up, and releasing the whole film online, for free. He engaged his viewers to hold house parties and share the videos with friends.

In the film, Greenwald and his team ask Afghans themselves if American troops are making them safer, liberating women, and gradually rebuilding their shattered country.

The answers are no, no, no, a thousand times no. The film and its grisly images of mutilated wives and starving children for sale in displaced people camps is a graphic indictment of America’s reliance on military occupation by foreign soldiers. “There is no good reconstruction by the Americans in Afghanistan,” says a village chief. Former Taliban and women leaders and members of parliament, along with former CIA officers, show how the American occupation has been successful only in helping the Taliban to recruit more fighters, killing a disproportionate number of Afghan women, and enflaming a nationalist backlash by the Pashtun tribes who control the seamless border with Pakistan.

“One of the most shocking things to me in making this film was to see the conditions for many women—so much worse now than under the Taliban,” Greenwald told me. “The corrupt Karzai government we represent is legitimizing the Taliban, and women and children are bearing the greatest brunt of our bombing.”

The strongest argument in the film against our mission is made by Robert Baer, the former CIA field operative in the Middle East, whose book See No Evil was the basis for the film Syriana: “The more we fight Afghanistan, the more the conflict gets pushed across the border into Pakistan; the more we destabilize Pakistan, the more likely it is a fundamentalist government will take over the army… and… will have al Qaeda-like groups with nuclear weapons.”

Through viral distribution, Greenwald has built a politically active network with an email list of more than one million. The only baldy in the group photo of the staff of Brave New Films, Greenwald is being retrofitted as a Millennial by his staff of 40 twenty-nothings. Young women and men in all shades of white to black, they are compulsive about ferreting out the best days and times to put up a new video and how to generate the most pass-alongs. They are doing what corporatized television is finally figuring out—getting the message out virally.

The full-length feature film Rethink Afghanistan is “the first real-time documentary,” says Greenwald. Over last weekend, while eight Marines were being gunned down by the Taliban, the film was being shown by The Nation, AlterNet, Credo, and Madre. Enthusiastic audiences were stirred to spread the message by buying the DVD (for $20) and inviting local members of Congress and friends to a screening. After a showing on Capitol Hill, Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards, a vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, predicted that a large number of Democrats will desert Obama if he decides to send more troops to Afghanistan.

“The critical job is to wean people off the heroin—our continuing addiction to the idea that our military can solve all the problems,” Greenwald insists.

At least there is awareness in some quarters of the Obama administration that the military is not the answer. When will we shift to more civic engagement of the population in building roads and schools and hospitals and the conditions for jobs? How else can we win the hearts and minds of a people tortured by war that have but one reliable fallback—they know how to repel foreign occupiers.

Let’s hope Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films can help the White House find a brave new policy.

Gail Sheehy is an American writer and lecturer, most notable for her books on life and the lifecycle. She is also a contributor to Vanity Fair.