Hollywoodgate and Camera as a Tool for Moral Reflection

in 6th El Gouna Film Festival

by Ola Salwa

Krzysztof Kieślowski would often say it is not important “where” the camera is standing, but “what” it stands for. The Polish filmmaker, widely known for his fiction work, started off as a documentary director, depicting daily life in communist Poland, which often would become a metaphor for the regime and its mechanisms. Extrapolating Kieślowski’s thought: the vantage point offered by a filmmaker and his camera is as much an aesthetic choice as an ethical one. And the mere gesture of turning on a recording device can be such a choice, too.

In the case of Hollywoodgate, a documentary directed by Ibrahim Nash’at that won our FIPRESCI award (and Grand Prix of the Documentary Competition, too) at El Gouna IFF, Kieślowski’s statement is more than relevant, with just a slight deviation. The camera here is not standing, but hand-held by the director-cinematographer in constant motion. It travels as if it were on a cinematic reconnaissance operation; it stops and looks around like a relative at a wedding; and it depicts private moments that otherwise would never get captured. Ultimately, the camera in Hollywoodgate bears witness to what happened after Western forces left Afghanistan in 2021 by following those who came to power. The country, called a “graveyard of the empires”, previously defeated Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union is now governed by the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group formed in 1994. They are the focus of the film, after the director negotiated unparalleled access to their fighting unit and recorded them for a year. This perspective does not come often to documentary cinema.

The majority of the films are set in war-torn and post-war regions and show the side of victims, humanitarian workers or soldiers helping them; alternatively, they depict the aftermath of the deadly regime’s actions and daily life under constant threat: Return to Homs (2013), directed by Hollywoodgate producer Talal Derki, or Under the Sky of Damascus (2023) that Derki co-directed with Heba Khaled, and Ali Wajeeh and Nash’at co-edited, The Cave (2019) and Last Men in Aleppo (2017) by Feras Fayyed or Maciek Hamela’s In the Rearview (2023) which is set in Ukraine – those are just a few that come to mind. How about the films glancing at the dark side? The list is much shorter, with Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) and Paweł Pawlikowski’s Serbian Epics (1992) springing to mind. Indeed, Hollywoodgate shows the inner circle of the Taliban rule and gives only a glimpse of the outside world: traffic on the streets of Kabul, or documentary footage depicting Talib destroying historical monuments and burning film stock – such scenes stand in dialogue with The Zone of Interest (2023) by Jonathan Glazer. The latter is set in the bucolic home of the Nazi Rudolf Höss a few yards away from Auschwitz’s gas chambers. The viewer never gets to see the terror, but its presence is palpable, also through the harrowing film score – an artistic strategy Nash’at uses as well. Volker Bertelmann’s music hinges on cello, double bass and what sounds like church organs to epitomize the horror, not unlike colonel Kurtz’s utterance before his final breath. The music serves as a momentum: no matter how mundane and ordinary the protagonists may look, they still form a deadly regime in Afghanistan. Do not get fooled and seduced by the propaganda, dear audience…


This cryptic audio storytelling device was also used for protection: Nash’at was allowed inside the Taliban unit as journalist, under the pretext of depicting their daily lives. He follows newly appointed Air Force chief, Mawlawi Mansour, and some lower-rank fighters, who believe that the camera is there to show their power and prowess, and that the film will be used to promote their ideology. We start off with the Talibs as they enter and roam “Hollywood Gate”, an American military complex filled with combat equipment, medicine and a fully stocked gym. They are like Ali Baba and his forty thieves; however, there is no need to say “open sesame” with the treasure up for grabs. The allusion to the fairy tale is not random: as the camera, and hence the audience follows the Talibs, it feels as if we were entering a surreal, parallel world: a world where terrorists show all human colours – vanity, curiosity, pride, conviction and comradeship. After they examine the chests of Hollywood Gate, they make plans, fight over an extra cucumber during lunch, and share war stories. Mawlawi, for example, tells how the mosque he passed by was later bombed, yet no Talib was killed – or martyred, as he puts it – only civilians. Then there is a conversation about women, no surprise there, and why they should cover their faces. We can see how the fighters have trouble with simple math, we see their affinity for kitschy celebration. The cherry on top is a close-up of an officer snoozing during a military parade organised to celebrate the first anniversary of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and includes the presentation of a suicide squad. It is like in a Gogol play: funny and scary.

These bits and pieces come together and result in something more than just a peephole to a world otherwise closed to Western eyes or, pretty much, every non-Taliban eye. Hollywoodgate delivers a carefully measured and applied cognitive dissonance: how people who epitomise terror, fear and evil can be so ordinary and mundane? It also asks: is it okay to look at Talibs like this? Maybe this new “evil empire” – a term coined by Ronald Reagan in 1983 to describe the Soviet Union – should stay dehumanised, impenetrable and pitch black. Coming back to Kieślowski’s question – the reason for what the camera is standing for in Hollywoodgate is to be a tool of moral reflection, to facilitate an intellectual and ethical exercise in a world where media numb independent or grey-scale thinking. That said, the film does not sympathise with the Taliban. Through presenting the prosaic – according to Talibs, that is – life, it brings out the grotesque and an air of surrealism. Initially, the Talibs have reservations against Nash’at, one saying that if he has bad intentions, they will kill him. For this group, other people’s lives are disposable. During this scene, at El Gouna Film Festival’s screening of Hollywoodgate muffled laughter gusted through the audience. It was not the last laugh that day. Nash’at explained that only Middle Eastern audiences laugh when watching these scenes, which probably meant that screening rooms in Venice, where the film had its world premiere, or those at IDFA, were soaked in silence. Were these scenes not funny in a different culture? Or, more likely the social norms and political correctness muffle the chuckles… and wrongly so. Laugher is not only a reaction to something funny, or a tool to forge social bonds; it is also a last resort of the mind facing something it does not understand or that is just too horrific to be fully absorbed. And sometimes reality – as depicted in Nash’at’s film – is difficult to process, so it can only be laughed at. Because for some, laughter is a way of exorcising the monsters, not just those presented by Hollywood, but also those recorded in the truly courageous endeavour called Hollywoodgate.

Ola Salwa
Edited by Birgit Beumers