A Vast Desert Landscape

in 14th Oslo International Film Festival

by Jan Aghed

Atiq Rahimi’s Earth and Ashes (Khakestar-o-khak), winner of the FIPRESCI prize at the recent Oslo Festival of Films from the South, is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, combining an extraordinary, exquisite visual language and themes and scenes resonating with current social and political relevance.

The events in this feature from a first-time director take place in an Afghanistan officially liberated from the Taliban rule, but at the same time laid in ruins and chaos by the American military invasion and the war and with a traumatized civilian population still prey to warring local rabbles of soldiers roaming through a devastated countryside. The parallels between what has happened and continues to happen to innocent villagers, women and children in Rahimi’s film and to civilians in daily media reports from Iraq are all too obvious, and just as obviously intended.

Wandering through a vast desert landscape, magnificently photographed although never just for pictorial effect, and with the wreckage of a huge American tank half buried in the sand in many of the film’s central shots, are an old man, Dastaguir, and his small grandson Yassin. Now and then explosions are heard, the result of sheep stepping on hidden landmines.

On their way to see the old man’s son, who works at a far-away sulphur mine, Dastaguir and Yassin arrive at a military station guarded by one soldier in the middle of nowhere. There, with the empty hull of the tank sticking up nearby, they have to wait for days for a truck that can take them to the mine. In the meantime, while the boy plays with a little girl whose widowed and mentally disturbed mother has sought shelter in the tank, their story is gradually revealed.

This is a characteristic feature of the film’s studiedly slow, yet never less than captivating narrative structure — to give out information only step by step. It turns out that Dastaguir and Yassin’s home village Abqol has been destroyed by American bombs and tanks, that his son’s mother and young wife have both been killed, after first being ‘dishonored’ — that is to say raped — in public view by soldiers, whose origin is left open to speculation, and that the old man is tormented by fear that the son will go mad when his father brings him this news.

Gradually, too, we realize that the boy cannot hear. The bombs or missiles hitting Abqol have made him deaf. While playing with the girl he says that “the tank stole people’s voices”: a dialogue line in keeping with the dark poetic nature of a film where the painterly beauty of the images, of stunning desert panoramas dwarfing the protagonists and caravans of refugees and underscoring their existential isolation and helplessness, heightens rather than softens the overall sense of a deep and immense human tragedy.

Earth and Ashes is a rare example of a post-9/11 film where a powerful moral and political statement of immediate importance is contained in a visual form permeated by a unique esthetic sensibility and integrity.

Jan Aghed