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Mujahedeen Movie Magic  
Our columnist checks out the film that freed Afghanis fought to see  

    Nov. 26 —  Last week’s liberation of Kabul unleashed a torrent of uplifting images from the besieged Afghani capital: men hurriedly shaving their beards, women strolling with exposed hair, kids watching TV for the first time in six years.  

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  I WAS PARTICULARLY struck by footage of Afghani citizens lining up outside a newly reopened Kabul movie theater to see a long-banned 1995 film called “Uruj” (“Ascension”). The excitement about seeing the movie was so intense, in fact, that dozens were injured in the melee for seats.
        As a former correspondent for the French film magazine Cahiers du Merde, I knew that any movie that caused more civilian injuries than a month of American bombing was something I had to see. I mean, this “Uruj” must be a veritable Afghani epic on par with classics like “Gone with the Wind” or “Casablanca.”
        And given the excitement that the movie’s return caused in Kabul, I couldn’t help but imagine what reviewers originally said about it. “I haven’t felt this good leaving a movie theater since I watched the execution of that guy who trimmed his beard!” (Kabul Daily News). “A three-burka tear-jerker!” (The Kandahar Morning Minaret). “I laughed, I cried, I spontaneously discharged my Kalashnikov!” (The Herat Holy Warrior). “Two shoulder-mounted rocket-launchers up!” (Siskel and Abdullah). “A movie so good that you should let your wife out of the basement to see it!” (Jalalabad Jihad). “Clearly, the greatest war movie since ‘Saving Private Ryan’ ” (Rex Reed).
The excitement about seeing the movie was so intense, in fact, that dozens were injured in the melee for seats.

       But getting a copy of this obscure film was not going to be easy, even for a “journalist” of my wiles. Surprisingly, my local Blockbuster Video’s “Afghani Film” section had a deplorably thin selection and my art film rental place only offers Pakistani martial-arts film. Take it from me, it’s just not the same.
        So I did what any good reporter would do: I asked my wife for some help. She advised me to call our favorite Afghani kabob house in Manhattan and ask the manager if he knew any good Afghani video stores. Sure enough, he led me to Kabul Market, a halal butcher shop in Queens.
        I called ahead and owner Zabi Faqiri said he would sell me his copy of “Uruj” for $12. (His offer brought to mind that old British saying, “You can’t buy Afghani loyalty, but you can rent it.” Obviously, the opposite is true for Afghani movies. You cannot rent them.)
        When I got there, I got much more than a copy of “Uruj.” I wasn’t in the store for more than two minutes when Faqiri invited me to break the Ramadan fast with him. Not only wouldn’t he take my “no” for an answer, but he gave me the only meatball while he and his co-workers gnawed on what appeared to be meatless bones.
        What a great city! Where else but New York could you find an Afghani refugee living in the middle of Chinatown, whose store is next to a Greek diner and a Korean supermarket and who would invite a Brooklyn Jew to dinner?
        Before popping “Uruj” in the VCR, I scoured the Internet for any information about it—which, as always, yielded only pornography. After making a few calls, I did discover that “Uruj” depicts the Freedom Fighters’ heroic battle to repel the Soviet invasion in the 1980s.
        Director Noor Hashem Abir used actual resistance fighters as extras while on location in northern Afghanistan in 1993. Battles nearby frequently halted filming and several cast members were even killed when Abir’s studio was hit by a rocket (sure, it further delayed completion of the film, but you really can’t buy that kind of publicity).
        Finally pressing “play,” I surrendered to low-budget Afghani filmmaking at its best (it’s amazing what Abir was able to accomplish with a shooting budget that could not have been more than $1,500 and two chickens).
        I won’t presume to critique Abir’s cinematography because my copy of the movie was as many generations from the original as I am from Noah. But the story of “Uruj” is your standard-issue war cliche, depicting heroic guerrillas trying to free their beloved homeland from an invading army.
        In “Uruj,” the invading Soviets are portrayed as apelike fools or white devils who look suspiciously like a young Bob Dylan as they ride around with their shirts off, their cowboy hats on and their shoulders draped with ammo.
        The Soviets have installed a puppet governor who looks a lot like American movie reviewer Gene Shalit (right down to the grotesque hair), but have not installed a good sound system for him. Everytime he addresses his constituents, the PA system keeps cutting out on him.
        How do we know he’s a Soviet puppet? Well, not only is he frequently swilling vodka (a no-no even for the least-devout Muslim), but his shirt, sportcoat and tie never, ever match.
        Our mujahedeen hero, Mirdad, is a man haunted by war. Believed to be dead after he was arrested by the Soviets, he is discovered wandering the mountains and retrained as a soldier. (The mujahedeen training regimen, by the way, looks like the version in “Full Metal Jacket” crossed with the Beatles movie “A Hard Day’s Night.”)
        But Mirdad is a bit of a loose cannon who keeps having these trippy hallucinations. In one, he runs into Shalit, who tries to tempt him with some hot Afghani porn (it’s actually just a photo of a woman with her hair uncovered. As they say in Konduz, “Va-va-va voom!”).
        In another sequence, Mirdad dreams that he’s either a prisoner in a Russian concentration camp or trapped in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” After walking through a field of fire and decapitated heads, he again encounters the vodka-swilling Shalit. You don’t need to speak Persian to know that someone smoked a lot of Afghani opium when this film was in post-production.
        Let me tell you, this guy Mirdad has more flashbacks than a Vietnam vet who drank Agent Orange with a heroin chaser every morning.
        OK, “Uruj” is amateurish. The special effects are right out of a Flash Gordon film, the vocal track is as out-of-sync as a Japanese karate movie, the score is an annoying mix of 1980s synth pop and arrhythmic Koranic chanting, some scenes look as if they were filmed at an indoor miniature golf course, and I haven’t seen fight sequences this sloppy since the “Star Trek” TV series.
        But the story it tells is worth hurling a chair through a movie theater window to see.
        In one climactic scene that should be shown to every American general from Tommy Franks on down, the rebels ambush a Soviet caravan and use everything at their disposal—rocks, knives, guns that Reagan sent over—to slaughter their foes. You don’t need to speak Pashtu to know that our ground troops would get their asses kicked by these guys.

Dec. 3 issue coverage:
•  National News
•  International News
Previous Coverage:
•  Oct. 29 Issue : The Ground War's First Shots
•  Oct. 22 Issue: Counterstrikes and Scares
•  Oct. 15 Issue: Plumbing the Roots of Rage
•  Oct. 8 Issue: Bioterror, The New Threat
•  Oct. 1 Issue: Trail Of Terror
•  Sept. 24 Issue: God Bless America
•  Commemorative Edition: Spirit of America
•  Extra Edition: America Under Attack
•  Web-exclusive Archives
       Of course, the battle is not won without some casualties. Mirdad’s buddy dies in the struggle—but not without a melodramatic death scene in which he implores our hero to keep up the fight so that his death will not be in vain (either that, or he’s begging him to pick up his dry cleaning before the late fees kick in).
        Later, Mirdad leads his troops in another suicide mission on the heavily armed—and physically imposing—Soviets (one of whom looks like the lead singer of Midnight Oil). The Soviets mow down the entire company, except for Mirdad, who flees to the hills. A Soviet gunship has him in its sights (“He can not escape now,” the pilot says in Russian, assuring me that I didn’t waste my entire college education), but Mirdad pulls out a rocket launcher and blows away the helicopter (or, in actuality, a plastic model of a helicopter hanging on a string).
        Eventually, though, the Soviets trap our hero in the mountains and the Midnight Oil guy wounds him, carries him into town and lays him at Shalit’s feet. Shalit tortures him with boiling oil, but Mirdad is too proud to cooperate, so Shalit burns him at the stake.
        In the resulting pyre, Mirdad sees his fellow mujahedeen making their way to heaven—fully armed, by the way.
        You don’t need to speak Uzbek to know that these guys are going to make quite a stink if they don’t get their 40 virgins.

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His Web site is at
       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
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