Pieter-Jan De Pue, director of the EFA-nominated documentary THE LAND OF THE ENLIGHTENED, talks about the reality of children in Afghanistan and trying to film it.
Can you briefly describe what your documentary is about and how you got interested in the subject?
Was it clear from the beginning that you want to make a documentary rather than a fiction feature?
Of course, due the difficult shooting circumstances and the unpredictable security situation in Afghanistan, the story line of the film has changed in many ways. However, since the beginning of the project, we kept the red line: the war in Afghanistan told through the eyes of the Afghan children. We needed to create a context of the war, so we went embedded for a long time with the US Army and the Afghan Army and shot their fight against the Taliban. When we started to focus on the life of the children and especially the dream of Gholam Nasir who wants to become the King of Afghanistan, we realised we were leaving the classical format of the documentary behind since we were visualising dreams, so-called fiction. So we understood from the very beginning of the project, the film was going to be a hybrid film, navigating between documentary and fiction.
How detailed was the script before shooting?
For a documentary we had a pretty detailed script. One of the reasons was that we needed to make as detailed as possible of a dossier for submitting to MEDIA and EURIMAGES, which required a very detailed approach of our intentions during the shoot. However, the reality in Afghanistan was very different, which we understood from the very first preparations. Since the country was so unpredictable and insecure, there was no way to prepare properly. We needed to be fast and very flexible, constantly adapting to new situations which we especially learned after we got ambushed by the Taliban. We mainly started preparing certain scenes at specific locations where we wanted to tell some parts of the main storyline of the film, with certain characters, shooting them very quickly, leaving the area quickly again. It was a time consuming process. But it seemed the only way to make this project possible, far away from Kabul and civilized areas.
The script contained different ‘B-plans’ for scenes. Sometimes it was impossible to film a certain scene in a specific location due to unforeseen circumstances. But we always made sure we had other options to get the story told. Some parts were eventually ‘scripted’ as well during the editing, for example scenes with the US Army which were completely documentarily shot, but had sometimes a very unexpected but interesting content.
What was the biggest challenge in making your film?
Patience. Understanding Afghanistan. Learning the language and the culture. Learning what Afghans wanted from us in order to co-operate to make this film possible. Creating security around us. Not getting isolated too much from life in Europe. Adapting again to our Western life style after a long time in a country which is part of another universe. Dealing with broken relationships and making straight choices to make an interesting film.
How would you describe the state of documentary cinema in Europe right now?
Difficult to say. I think we Europeans, are more and more looking for stories outside of Europe, countries where production budgets are low or non-existing, but where stories are everywhere. Is it because in Europe everything is stable and the stories or topics aren’t interesting? On the other hand, I see a new generation of documentary filmmakers emerging on the edge of Europe, in ex-Soviet countries and other difficult areas, making films with very low micro budgets, but making incredible films.
In recent years the borders between documentary and fiction have blurred. What do you think of this development and where do you see yourself in this development?
I think it is an interesting evolution. But actually I am not really thinking about the fact I am a documentary maker or a fiction director. People call my film a fiction film with documentary elements. Another film festival considers the film as a documentary, exploring the boundaries towards fiction. I am focusing on a new project now, which is going to be a feature fiction. It might be very interesting to have actors in certain situations where they won’t act any more, but due to the circumstances of the situation, be ‘themselves.’ Or on the other hand, working more with non-actors as well – if it makes your story richer, what does it matter if your film is considered a documentary or fiction?