Under Review: ‘Taliban: Behind the Masks’


This documentary, about a reporter embedded with a Taliban group, is done right. After waiting several weeks in Kabul, Paul Refsdal, a Norwegian journalist, is allowed to join a Taliban outfit high up in the eastern Afghanistan mountains in the fall of 2009.

He has been here before. Twenty-five years ago. During the time when rebel forces were fighting the Russians and the US was supplying these rebels, Refsdal joined a rebel group and reported from the field.

He reminisces at the beginning of this film about the irony. “25 years ago I went to Afghanistan to report from the Afghan rebel-movement. That time they were the heroes of the West. They were the freedom-fighters. Today the rebels are the enemies of the West. They are the terrorists.”

Refsdal, like the true investigative reporter that he is, says, “I wanted to go back to see for myself who these people are. Are the Taliban really such fanatics as they are portrayed in the media?”

Finally in the documentary archives we have an investigative reporter, Paul Refsdal, who knows what to shoot, when to shoot and how to edit with professional clarity. He catches the crisp sound of the stream water moving quickly over mountain rocks, the distinct cry of birds and footsteps shuffling up the arid dust of this desolate location. He shoots what is, without interspersing opinions and editorial commentary. The viewer gets caught up in the story.

Refsdal ends up in Qari Dawat’s camp. Dawat has a $400,000.00 American price on his head. Research outside the doc reports that at least one Afghan man has tried to turn Dawat in. However, after the plan was discovered and the man significantly beaten, instead of dropping him over a bridge, as originally planned, Dawat intervenes and forgives him.

Dari Dawat is a wealthy landowner who used to own a grand home. However, in this film he has moved up into a mountain hide-out with clay windowless walls with his wife and three children. He represents the law of the land. Inhabitants go to him to solve their problems.

As part of their daily routine, Dawat gathers his men in the morning for a short inspirational talk and prayer. He says, “One of my requests is that God is with us every hour in our struggle. During the Russian invasion, someone asked me when the victory will come. The answer was: If the holy warriors are honest and fight only for the sake of God, then victory will come soon. If not, it will take more time.”

He reminds his men that they “fight for our freedom, our religion and we fight for our holy land. We are fighting for these goals.”

The group of men are young and very nice looking. They have clean fresh innocent-looking faces. They are quiet and even shy. As time goes on they become accustomed to Refsdal who shows them how to use his camera.

Paul Refsdal is well-studied in Islam and Afghanistan culture. As the Taliban members work the camera the viewer sees a tall blond man who is distinctly behaving as a quiet observer.

Curiously, the viewer wonders why the Taliban men have left their homes, jobs and families to camp out in these mud and stone make-shift shelters in the mountains. What is it about the American presence, which the West understands is to rid the country of al-Qaeda terrorists and bring greater stability and justice to the region, that so bothers these men? Why are they willing to risk everything to fight such a superior force?

Early on in the film Dawat asks his men, referring to the American soldiers, “What are their goals?” No one responds so he asks the same question again in a different way, “For which goals they are fighting us? Are they oppressed? Have they been treated unfair? Are they living in a dictatorship?”


Evidently neither Dawat nor his followers understand anything more than that someone has entered their campground uninvited. And from that point, as the men pray and then proceed to their battle stations high in the mountains above the American convoy route in Tantil, we know there is no possibility of an American success.

Eight different groups of ten men have surrounded the location. The convoy comes. They are instructed to let the first vehicle pass. Then the shooting and an American vehicle is destroyed and the people inside killed.

Just like what we saw from an encampment with the American side in “Restrepo,” the killing on both sides is without known reason. No soldier, in either film, comes up with the great Why?

All we know in this doc is that Dawat believes that he is part of a spiritually ordained force that must rout the invader. He says, “God is the one who has power. He will destroy them like he destroyed the Pharaoh, and many others during the history of Islam and of the world.”

Interestingly, the film ends abruptly. The last scenes have Dawat gently interacting with two of his absolutely adorable, shy, dark-eyed children, perhaps around 5 and 6, who stay close in their father’s arms. We are told that in a few days Americans bombed his compound killing them. News reports also indicate that his wife died in the same attack.

But there is even more to this story – though not more to the film. The major reason this well-done film ends the way it does is because Refsdal is asked to leave for awhile. Later he is kidnapped by the same group he befriended.
Refsdal was released after six days without ransom. Dawat reported it was because Refsdal had fully converted to Islam. Refsdal says he was tricked. Whatever the case, there is a lot in the aftermath of his initial visit that I hope Refsdal adds to his story. The bottom line on this documentary is that it is an excellently produced vignette about Taliban life and thinking.

Director, Producer and Videographer: Paul Refsdal
Released: July 14, 2010
Language: English subtitles

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