“It’s almost like it isn’t real,” said Redhead as the first pile of body parts from a suicide bomber appeared on our screen. Cuddled up on the couch with the AC keeping my body from the reality of the Oklahoma summer and a drink relaxing my brain, I had the same thought.
Kandahar Journals documents the psychological transformation of Canadian photojournalist Louie Palu, and the time he spent in Afghanistan from 2006-2010. Palu is a veteran photographer who has received numerous awards. His work is currently part of a Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery exhibition called “The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now“.
We weren’t doubting the validity of the image as though it was a Faces of Death-style put-on. Logically we both knew what we were seeing. But what our brains were doing at a very primal level was making art out of madness… a survival mechanism that automatically engages, in order to disengage from dealing with real horror. When our brains transform real events into artificial, the real is can be placed outside of ourselves and examined. A much easier thing to do when you’re on a couch looking at imagines, and don’t have to smell burning flesh.
And that invites the question.. is the mission of the war photojournalist — to show the public the reality of war — an impossible mission? Is Louie Palu just Captain Ahab chasing a white whale? Is the drive to go into war zones and make art out of madness, madness in and of itself?
“The more I see, the less I understand.” – Louie Palu from his Kandahar Journals
Kandahar Journals is not your average war documentary. It’s a psychological journey into another dimension… a journey not unlike Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now. Yet outside of literature and Hollywood film making, these images are real. But are they real to the civilians of the West who haven’t experienced war? Can they possibly be real to us, even though they indeed happened in objective reality (is there an objective reality?)?
This isn’t a Sunday night popcorn doc where you can go to bed informed and ready to write your congressman or thank a Veteran over coffee and your laptop Monday morning. Other war documentaries are like Kenny G compared to Kandahar Journals raw, no-bullshit, Black Flag approach. In addition to the brutal carnage…. the aforementioned body parts along with photos and video Palu shot when he was embedded with a MEDVAC unit: a man’s bones sticking out of his blown off leg, his skin hanging off like rags, a child with his mouth blown off, a shivering child being wrapped in a heat blanket due to loss of blood, a man with half his face a bloody mess looking right through the camera lens into your soul …. every other element of the documentary serves to enhance the raw brutality of the images. There are no tidy feel-good narratives or cheap-ass armchair political commentary in the excellent writing by CBC journalist Murray Brewster, and the soundtrack by composer Manuel Hidalgo is as melodic as my tinnitus. In fact it was the soundtrack — the music along with Palu’s narration — that reminded me of Apocalypse Now (not to mention the scene where soldiers hum “Flight of the Valkyries” as their helicopters land to pick them up – da da da DAH da!).
But in this story, the photojournalist is not Dennis Hopper’s harlequin, but the protagonist – Martin Sheen’s Capt. Benjamin Willard, only in an armored vehicle instead of a boat. One shot of Palu in a comfortable bed back in the West, he has the same thousand mile stare that Sheen could only mimic.
“It’s impossible for words to describe, what is necessary, to those who do not know, what horror means… horror, horror has a face” – Kurtz in Apocalypse Now
Because of the mountainous terrain, described by Palu as beautiful from the air (“I was on the threshold of great things” – Kurtz in Heart of Darkness) the only way from the West to Pakistan, and to Afghanistan’s capital Kabul is through Kandahar, “the uncontrollable land.” Flanked by agricultural regions, Kandahar is close to where the Taliban and Al Qaeda were formed and have been headquartered. Western forces, from Russia to NATO, have had an impossible time trying to control the uncontrollable land, perhaps a metaphor for the photojournalists’ impossible mission of capturing reality in a dimension of madness.
“Stay calm under fire. Focus your mind. Acknowledge danger. And work.
Don’t let the situation control me. I must control what’s in my frame.
How can I convey the reality of war through words and pictures?” – Louie Palu
Through the course of the documentary, we go back and forth from the two realities of war-torn Afghanistan and the peaceful first-world of the West: Palu’s home in Canada with his family, opening night of a his exhibit with patrons drinking beer and gazing at the images (much like this viewer), Washington DC…
Then a shot from the front of a tank as the gates to an Afghanistan military base open, like in Apocalypse Now as the canoes part for Willard’s riverboat to Kurtz’s lair. They open not only into the mind of madness but back in time, 2000 years ago, the Biblical figures emerging from mud brick houses, cows and sheep in the small courtyard, chewing on the very grass Christ was born upon. Christian men just out of boyhood raised with these images now dressed like modern Roman soldiers, wondering if these are gentle shepherds or violent Taliban. We can try to imagine the harm that kind of mental stress would cause, being in that situation where the enemy is always lurking, the front lines are nowhere but in the mind. Shepherds from a Christian child’s picture book armed with automatic rifles, ghostly figures captured on night-vision camera, close but far away. As one Canadian solider said in the film “I haven’t seen a single Taliban, but I’m pretty sure i talked to a lot of them.”
It’s as though we’ve created a reality here in the safe West, through media presented in religion, in government, in corporate news media and entertainment, designed specifically to cover up the insanity of our crimes in the East.
Children calmly jumping in and out of the river, then a firefight, fear and panic, hiding behind ancient mud walls. “Watch yourself Louie,” warns a soldier as he peeks up over the wall for a shot.
Then back again in Washington DC on assignment on the floor of Congress…the photojournalist literally on the floor, with his camera… politicians discussing the Afghanistan war… the money, the situation, is it good or bad… insane babbling. I laughed at how Palu is hunkered down as though taking more cover than he did in firefights with the Taliban, being in the bowels of the empire, in dangerous presence of the war-makers.
A shot of John McCain, Colonel Kurtz himself, so infected by war that it’s become him and all he can create…
“It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze.”- Heart of Darkness
In the end the photojournalist is not the Willard in Apocalypse Now, who slaughters Kurtz, but the protagonist Marlow from Heart of Darkness, who tries to bring the Kurtz — the embodiment of madness– home, only to have him die on the ship, whispering “The horror! The horror!”
Those who must experience both realities.. the safe one here, and the madness there, are left to live in the impossible space between, as we are presented toward the end of Kandahar Journals with the image of a man — is it Louie Palu or a soldier? — walking through a sandstorm…
“There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! He had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air.” — Heart of Darkness