Terrifying is not an adjective you can readily apply to most documentaries, at least not beyond the subject matter at hand. Sure, plenty take horrifying travesties of justice as their core focus, and consequently make for a ‘tough watch’. The Miscreants of Taliwood goes one further in effectively making a documentary horror film. Anything can happen, and consequently does. The Doc/Fest catalogue somewhat glibly ends its synopsis reflecting that Miscreants is “at times difficult to watch.” The film goes far beyond that, occasionally to the point of forcing more sensitive viewers out of the screening I saw. Personally I had the good fortune to almost look away, to second guess my line of acceptability. Miscreants definitely crossed that line.
The setup is that of Australian artist/filmmaker George Gittoes, living in Pakistan, off in pursuit of the indigenous Pashto film industry. Micro-budget films that come somewhere between Rambo, Bollywood and Jackass, with political commentary and guaranteed midgets in every film. The heartland of this industry in Peshawar, close to the borders of Afghanistan, is closer still to political rule of the Taliban. As has been well documented, the Taliban hate all ‘frivolous’ creation that isn’t in the name of god, and consequently don’t look too favourably on camp action films with scantily-clad women. Film producers, and dvd vendors are both under persistent attack, kidnapping and threatening individuals, blowing up the stalls of those who sell the films. Still the industry keeps on turning, the producers on the run, the stars living an uneasy existence in an unacknowledged but ever present public eye.
The terror beyond the subject matter itself comes in the merry abandon Gittoes holds towards the telling of this story, his scant disregard for maintaining a register the audience can be comfortable with. Observational footage is inter-cut with overt and covert dramatic/satirical recreations, Gittoes role as observer pushed right to the forefront of the film by maintaining an assistant camera man at all times, consciously filming the filming of the indigenous film industry. When the outsider chooses to personally get involved with the industry, stumping up $4000 (US) and taking a key supporting role, his position as observer, documentary filmmaker, Pashto star and producer gets mixed up into a frankly dizzying mix.
There’s the palpable tension of watching Gittoes drive into the Taliban heartland to interview a prominent Mullah on censorship, an anxiety of the Gittoes becoming just another kidnapped Westerner, executed for the world to behold online. Not that this is played deathly straight, as on either end of the segment are some pretty hilarious clips of Gittoes practically falling over himself in the role of local action superstar.
The central question at the heart of the film seems to be what kind of film star is Gittoes destined to become: that of the AK-wielding Pashto action hero, the dead subject of a gruesome Taliban execution tape, or even just as a unabashed, exploitative and unreliable gonzo documentary maker?
The broad laughs of a Western audience at the high camp shenanigans of the Pashto film industry are all fine and well, but Miscreants’ brilliance comes in the genuinely horrific last chapter of the film, where this very laughter is turned to political ends. Taliwood is as daft as a brush, but it’s one of the region’s few areas of self expression. The Taliban are doing their utmost to terrorise this industry out of existence, and in its place only an industry of propaganda can exist. But just like Pashto action films, the execution propaganda films are pushing towards even more hyperbolic levels of audience engagement. Gittoes goes the distance in showing this horrifying absurdity by throwing an execution film up there. He shows some of it, he partially censors some of it. I couldn’t tell you how much as I’m no big fan of snuff films myself, and chose to close my eyes for the climax. Others didn’t, a few even took this as a cue to make a swift departure from the cinema.
I hated Gittoes for going where he did, for showing the unshowable, while still sort-of-but-insufficiently censoring it at the same time. I couldn’t quite believe the festival would let people see the film without a sliver of warning.
But then the film makes its points, about the indoctrination of the young, about the escalation of terror on both sides of the conflict, about the sheer absurdity of the Taliban’s hypocrisy. Wham-Bam-chew-on-that pal.
Perhaps it’s a bit cheap to knock your audience down, and then effectively lecture them while they’re still on the mat. But it works, the conflict is fucking terrifying and to do it with even an iota of justice you can’t shy away from things. Which is perhaps the ultimate cliché, but never was a stronger case made for it, and all the power to a documentary for going where mainstream news couldn’t go in a million years. A disconcerting experience through and through, and unlikely to be on More4 or BBC Storyville anytime soon.