What is life like on the ground for ordinary people in another culture, another world? That’s been the bread and butter of observational documentaries for forever, but almost never is it done with the kind of beauty and grace filmmaker James Longley brings to his Afghanistan-set “Angels Are Made of Light.”
As his 2006 Oscar-nominated “Iraq in Fragments” demonstrated, MacArthur Fellow Longley, who serves as his own cinematographer as well as directs, has an almost magical ability to envelope us in other realities.
He does it via the poetry of his imagery as well as a gift for focused illumination that creates empathetic portraits of people who are both ordinary and intensely involving.
Even with Longley’s abilities, getting something like “Angels” made takes a formidable amount of purpose, preparation and patience. Determined to do a film about a school as a window into ordinary life, Longley tried for years to get a project set up in various countries.
Then he spent months scouting places in Afghanistan before settling on Daqiqi Balkhi, a neighborhood elementary school in Kabul, and filming there for 200 days over three years. That amount of time enabled the entire school population to get comfortable with the filmmaker’s presence and allowed for the forming of a bond with the three young brothers whose mother Fazula is one of the school’s teachers and whose lives we follow intimately.
As mentioned, Longley’s visuals, whether they show snowball fights, the play of light inside the ruined mosque that houses the school or tarps fluttering on an especially windy day, reflect the filmmaker’s never less than impeccable eye.
But, even more so than with “Iraq in Fragments,” the specific nature of the film’s narration is equally potent. Longley used Afghan speakers to record long conversations with the people in the film, talks so extensive that the English transcription was over 8,000 pages.
Carefully chosen excerpts from these are played as voice-over with the visuals, creating a word-and-picture portrait that makes these people seem as real and human as the folks who live next door, which is of course the point.
This is especially true of the three brothers who are the film’s focus, each of whom has a definite personality and place in the family dynamic.
Sohrab, the middle brother, is met first. He’s a real live wire, proud of his status as one of the top students in his class and bursting with the desire to demonstrate (to the delight of his friends) his skills as a reader and speaker.
Rostam, the oldest brother, has a different path. He is out of school and working in one of Kabul’s numerous auto repair shops, the money he earns becoming increasingly necessary to the family’s survival.
The youngest, Yaldash, is in effect trying to navigate between his two siblings. Though he is apprenticed to a tinsmith, he misses his time at school and worries a lot about whether to “follow either the road of metal or the road of books.”
Because this is a Muslim school where Quran study is a key element of the curriculum (“Angels are made of light, we can’t see them but they can see us” is one of the lessons on the curriculum), all but the youngest girls are not seen on camera or heard from very much.
While the three brothers are the film’s main focus, we meet other people and follow various educational developments, including the school’s progress from its ruined mosque site to a brand-new building under the aegis of its passionate principal Faiz Mohammed.
Inspiring the entire community to a commitment to education — “Education is our occupation, knowledge is our watchword and our pride” the students enthusiastically chant — the principal is not without a sense of humor, cracking to a teacher who blames his lateness on traffic, “May God have mercy on your fibbing.”
Also heard from is Nik Mohammed, a teacher with a particular interest in history. As he talks about Afghanistan’s past, filling us in on coups and regime changes, wars and invasions, his words play over faded color newsreels which Longley found in the Afghan National Film Archives.
“They squeezed us like pomegranates and nobody cared,” he says of his country’s various rulers. “Until when will we have a war in our country? Until when will we live in poverty and despair?”
Though there is footage of boys being boys, doing things like flying the kites Kabul is celebrated for, the somber reality of living in a combat zone is never far from the surface. “There is a war in my country,” says Nabiullah, a friend of Sohrab’s, “and we cannot study.”
As it is for the boys, so it is for everyone in this remarkable film. “People have learned how to fight,” one adult says, “but not how to live a normal life,” while another adds simply, “This war is destroying our country.” Words straight from their hearts to ours.
“Angels Are Made of Light”
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
Playing Laemmle’s Glendale, Glendale.