By Matthew E. Milliken
April 18, 2015
Tell Spring Not to Come This Year, the new movie that made its North American debut this month at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, shows the travails of a unit in the Afghanistan National Army.
To make the film, co-directors Saeed Taji Farouky and Michael McEvoy embedded with a battalion in the army, which began taking full responsibility for national security in 2014. Thanks to McEvoy, who formally served the United Kingdom in Afghanistan as a liaison between the British and Afghanistan army, the pair had unique access to a group of soldiers and their commander. The men in their film, despite being well-meaning and willing to serve and sacrifice for their nation, struggle to bring security and stability to a land with few national institutions.
At times, Tell Spring Not to Come makes Afghanistan’s deficits seem achingly clear. A caption in the film informs the audience that Afghanistan had never had an official national military until the Western powers that invaded the country in 2002 helped form one the following year. (I found that quite startling.) Early on, an officer gives a speech to his troops about some young soldiers, evidently on leave, who were pulled from their homes and killed by Taliban fighters. Later, as the unit is about to deploy to a combat zone, a soldier tells his commander that the men aren’t afraid, but they are upset about not having been paid for the past nine months.
Both Afghanistan and the army that seeks to protect it very much seem like works in progress. At one point, the officer featured in the movie, Capt. Jalaluddin, takes his men to a police station that’s been firing on an army base at night. It seems impossible to ascertain who is authorized to be at the station. Jalaluddin, who hides his face with sunglasses and a kerchief, asks some men for identification; they say they don’t have any because they’re new. The captain almost casually threatens to kill the policemen if their post fires on the army base again. Eventually, he arrests one of the men at the station — but later, in an interview, Jalaluddin complains that most suspects are let go without proper investigations, essentially rendering the gesture futile. This episode, like so many others in the movie, makes it seem as if the Afghanistan army is tackling a truly sisyphean task.
But at least Sisyphus’s fate was settled for all eternity; the work the men in Tell Spring Not to Come This Year do is dangerous, and a mistake can mean the difference between life and death — or deaths. Twice, the group is pinned down as one or both of the directors are there to film the events. During the second, extended siege, one of the soldiers is shot; we see him lying unconscious, his breathing labored, as his companions wonder if any of them are going to be able to walk away from the operation. They do — and, although it’s not disclosed in the documentary, so does the wounded soldier. (In a question-and-answer session after Tell Spring Not to Come This Year was screened at Full Frame, Farouky said that McEvoy, who filmed the siege, helped save the wounded man’s life.)
All in all, the impression one gets of both the Afghanistan army and nation is that it’s completely improvised. It seems that everything we see, from the unit’s uniforms, weapons and vehicles to the nation’s roads and buildings, is either disheveled, mismatched or makeshift. Jalaluddin, who admits to ambivalence toward western military intervention in his nation, even wears a shirt bearing U.S. Marine Corps insignia into battle. And late in the movie, much to my surprise, I realized that the unit’s briefing room also doubled as a gymnasium. It’s hard not to share Jalaluddin’s dismay when he and other soldiers inspect a base from which an American unit has withdrawn and find that the entire facility has been rendered useless — even the wiring has been removed.
Tell Spring Not to Come This Year wraps up quietly. The film has no real moral and entirely lacks the kind of inspirational achievement that forms the climax of many a movie, documentary or otherwise. Instead, it left this viewer with a grim feeling. I was able to walk out of the theater and travel around my city, my state and (this week) much of the East Coast without fear of being shot or blown up. Based on the evidence of this film, it will take years — and maybe much longer — before most residents of Afghanistan will be able to say the same.
Author’s note: Please see the latter part of this post for details about my attendance at the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which is due to a generous gift from a friend. Also, although I always strive for accuracy, I did not take notes during 2015 festival screenings. I apologize in advance if I’ve muffed any dialogue, names or other details in my write-ups. MEM