Rationality Put to the Test: An Interview with Clément Cogitore

in 68th Cannes Film Festival

by Steffen Moestrup

The Wakhan FrontAfghanistan, 2012. A group of French soldiers are stationed at a remote post in the Wakhan Valley on the border to Pakistan. Not much happens. Days blend together. The men monitor the valley and the local village from two lookouts. One day when the soldiers fire a warning shot, their dog disappears. They don’t think any further about it. The dog probably just got afraid from the shot, but the next day the dog is still missing, and suddenly two soldiers from one of the observation post have also vanished without a trace. Have they deserted? Or been shot and the bodies removed? The energetic captain Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) begins a search, soon to prove much more complex and fateful than expected.

With his debut feature The Wakhan Front (the French title is Ni le ciel, ni la terre, which can be translated into Neither Heaven Nor Earth), 31-year-old Frenchman Clément Cogitore has accomplished a radically different war film. The film mixes successfully familiar elements from the war film genre with more spiritual and metaphysical sequences.

The Wakhan Front competed in Semaine de la Critique at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where I met the director and asked him what the motivation has been to create this unique genre mix. “On a train station I saw a poster with some missing persons and I came to think of where these people were. What happened to them? Maybe they started a new life somewhere else”, he said.

“Maybe something horrible occurred to them. But nobody just disappears. They are always somewhere. But then I played with the idea that what if someone really just disappears. That one day they exist, and the next day they do not exist anymore”, said Cogitore who later in the process linked this idea with the idea to make a war movie.

“I had a great urge to examine the way we do war today. How we try to control everything and use modern technology to have this control. The soldiers use the technology to monitor the landscape. It’s always pictures of the landscape, which dictates the war. I wanted to examine how the concept of disappearing would be like in this setting”, Cogitore explained.

“Historically war has created an increased distance. We began by fighting each other hand to hand, then came guns and other weapons, which created the opportunity for greater distance. And today, a man sitting in the US and just like in a computer game controls his joystick and slaughters people on the other side of the globe. At the same time my film is also a confrontation between two ways of faith. Two ways to be in the reality that may become even more different from one another now that war has created such a great distance.”

In the film a growing number of soldiers from the French camp disappears, and the frustration is increasing while the remaining men realize that their rational approach to reality is no longer sufficient.

“In the West we have a lot of focus on what can be physically manifest. We must have proof, and we prefer physical evidence. Otherwise, we have a hard time dealing with it. Then it becomes incomprehensible or irrational. The soldiers in the film primarily search for meaning and reject the supernatural. But whatever makes the soldiers disappear obviously has no moral. It does not judge who is the villain and who is the hero. It acts randomly, irrational and unfair many people would say”, explained Cogitore, who does not consider his film to have an explicit political stance.

“For me politics is what dictates how we live together. In the film, it appears that the locals in the village, the French soldiers and the Taliban fighters who are their enemies, all have the same problem. And they all have to deal with this problem. They do so in different ways. The politics of the film probably consists in recognising the fact that we have different ways of thinking and relating to reality.”

For Cogitore the Western mind-set represent also just one way to believe that he would like to discuss with his film. “Our Western world is based on a belief system, just like the more archaic and religious communities are. Our democracy is a belief system. Capitalism is a belief system, which of course also has its obscure sides and it can be just as harmful to humanity like all other forms of religious fanaticism.”

The Western desire for the rational and the physical manifestation is visible several places in the film. For instance, in one scene it is explained how the body bags are filled with soil to raise the weight when you have only found a few body parts of dead soldiers. We need to have the content of the body bag to at least imitate the weight of a human.

In his research for the film Cogitore interviewed several soldiers and discovered how the relationship between soldiers and local Afghans often fatally is linked to the many translations that are necessary in the distinctive cultural meeting that war also can be said to consist of. The film shows all these translations in real time. We hear both the French expression and the equivalent in Afghan language. This creates a special tension, which helps to establish the insecurity and uncertainty that constantly surrounds the communication and affects the soldiers.

This uncertainty is something the director knows all about. “I’ve made some documentaries in countries where I do not know the language. It is a strange situation. You do not know what people say. You may sense that they are angry or happy, but you cannot be sure. I wanted to have that uncertainty as a permanent state in the film. It gives a sense of the emotional forfeiture, which soldiers experience”, explained Cogitore, who has also heightened the documentary touch by casting a former soldier Sam Mirhosseini. He served as interpreter for the French troops in Afghanistan when he was in the military.

Besides a number of documentaries Cogitore has a background in contemporary art, where he has created experimental installation art and art photography. This diversity can also be traced in the film’s visual style, where for instance a shot through a night vision device becomes an abstract image that is difficult to decipher.

“We have used real military equipment such as binoculars and Night Vision Glasses, which we filmed through. So it is actually real equipment that creates these almost abstract images. Despite the high-tech equipment the soldiers are also manipulated because of the pictures. It is difficult to know when you see something, and when you do not see anything.”

“Night vision goggles exist so the soldiers can see the truth, but they soon learn that they do not get the truth from the glasses but only some pieces of information, which they then have to interpret and act upon. Objects and eyes is only one access to perception, and it demands intellectual and spiritual involvement to piece your own truth together”, explained the director, who in a quite magical scene in the film films the participants in such a way that we as viewers can see the French soldiers, and only when the Afghans start to move, we discover that they have always been present in the image.

The Wakhan Front is just about to enter the world of cinema, but Cogitore has already shown the film to several soldiers and people in the military, not without some concern: “I’ve been nervous about their reaction. Whether they could relate at all to my film. But so far I have only met a great understanding of the film and its themes.”

Edited by Richard Mowe