On Screen #6 – Afghanistan

Britain’s war in Afghanistan ended recently after 13 years with the main British base at Camp Bastion being handed over to the locals who will be left to their own devices regarding the security of a province which has proved difficult to tame and has seen 453 Britons killed.

This landlocked Central Asian country has been torn by conflict for decades and for that reason (and pretty much that reason only!) has attracted the attention of film makers and TV executives who have used the various wars as a backdrop to tell their story. It should be no surprise that almost none of these productions have actually been shot in its actual location. Many countries have filled in for Afghanistan and it’s this fakery which attracts the interest of me.

Our Girl‘ (2014) aired on BBC1 in October with former Eastenders star Lacey Turner starring as the army medic deployed to Afghanistan as part of a a British Army infantry. She played Molly Dawes; the young working class adult who gets caught up in a love triangle of sorts. Serra Della Camp, a beautiful wildlife reserve in the Bonte Bok mountain range north of Cape Town in South Africa filled in for the country and the crew spent two and a half months filming there.

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The same set was actually used for ‘Bluestone 42‘ (2013); the BBC3 comedy drama series about a British bomb disposal detachment in Helmand Province. How nice of the BBC to save the license fee payers money by squeezing two shows out of the same set! The comedy focuses on the camaraderie between the soldiers, situational comedy, bureaucracy, conflicts of interests and relationships which is all in stark contrast to the deadly situations the potty-mouth soldiers are required to defuse. The end of the second series would’ve been a fitting and perfect place to bow out but I’m one of those rare people who doesn’t mind his favourite shows coming to an end. However, it will return for a third series in 2015.

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There was certainly no faking Helmand Province though in ‘Ross Kemp In Afghanistan‘ (2008); the British documentary series which aired on Sky One for five episodes followed by another five for the follow up series which was titled ‘Ross Kemp: Return To Afghanistan‘ (2008). Viewers were taken up close and personal to the realities of battle and the crew were even pinned down by fire from the Taliban, with Kemp enduring bullets passing within inches of him whilst in the second series he ran into a possible minefield.

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Haven’t seen it myself but ‘Combat Hospital‘ (2006) was a Canadian TV show (one season, 13 episodes) set in Kandahar revolving around the life and work of doctors and nurses from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Its creator actually travelled to Afghanistan to conduct first-hand research at a small military hospital where stories from medical personnel were collected to add realism to the show. Real images taken during that visit were blended in with all the other main Toronto-based scenes.

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Onto movies then and Ben Stiller’s romantic adventure comedy drama ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty‘ (2013) featured Afghanistan in the latter part with the Skogafoss waterfall and Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland used to replicate those scenes as this remote European country was used extensively for filming playing itself as well as Greenland. This film is unique in a sense as it includes Afghanistan for reasons other than the war!

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It may be a great story but I wasn’t such a fan of ‘Lone Survivor‘ (2013), particularly the first three quarters of the movie which felt like a propaganda video at times and was more concerned with over-long military-style action scenes instead of characterisation. Bagram Airfield and the ancient city of Bagram itself are seen on screen but all was shot in New Mexico with Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque doubling for the former. In fact, all filming took place in New Mexico (USA) in Chilili and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Santa Fe National Forest with the latter filling in as the Hindu Kush mountain range that stretches between Afghanistan and Pakistan whilst the former played host to several battles scenes as well as the Pashtun village protected in reality by Afghan villagers out of duty to their 2000 year old code of honour which requires a tribe to undertake the responsibility of safeguarding an individual against his enemies and protecting him at all costs. Their fight against the taliban continues…

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Born Of War‘ (2013) is set in part in the Wakhan Corridor; the narrow strip of territory in the north-east of Afghanistan extending into China and separating Tajikistan and Pakistan. This time it was Amman in Jordan which filled in for the war-torn country.

The Patrol‘ (2013) claims to be the “British answer to Hurt Locker” and is an action drama film set in Helmland Province in 2006 exploring the relationships between a group of British soldiers as they grow disillusioned with the Afghan war. It was filmed entirely on location in the Agafahy desert which is about 40 miles from Marrakech in Morocco.

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157 minutes may be too long for a movie where we all know the outcome but ‘Zero Dark Thirty‘ (2012) still provides a very tense and breathtaking finale as the raid on Bin Laden’s hideout (filmed on a specially constructed set in the deserts of Jordan) is played out on screen. The scenes of the Navy SEALs flying in to siege the place are compelling and with it shot to replicate the zero dark thirty (military code for the time 00:30) raid it brings another sense of meaning to the word dark in a film with very dark themes.

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In ‘Afghan Luke‘ (2011) we see a Canadian journalist going after a story of possible mutilation of corpses in this rocky, impoverished land which appear increasingly incomprehensible and surreal as the protagonist undergoes a series of bizarre adventures. The scenery is quite beautiful actually but naturally those Afghan mountains are not the real thing as British Columbia and Nova Scotia in Canada substitutes for Shirac and the ISAF Base.

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Kunar Province in the northeastern part of Afghanistan appears on screen in ‘Iron Man‘ (2008). It’s where Tony Stark is captured and imprisoned in a cave after the army convoy is ambushed. Alabama Hills at Lone Pine on Route 395 in central California provide the strange Afghan rock formations. Once he’s escaped from captivity in the prototype metal suit he lands 20 miles further south amid the white sands of the Olancha Sand Dunes. Edwards Air Force Base in southern California doubled up as Bagram Air Base.

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Quite possibly one of the best films to be set in Afghanistan is ‘The Kite Runner‘ (2007); an incredibly moving story about two childhood friends and what follows in their adult lives. The themes of friendship, family, human values, and courage under fire all feature and left a lasting impression on me. The film flashes back and forth and features Kabul in 1978 with production taking place in the cities of Kashgar and Tashkurgan in the Xinjiang region of China with film extras supplied by the Ugyur Community of the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. Afghan scenes shot in the oasis city of Kashgar, China’s most western city, include the kite tournament and the mosque where Amir prays whilst Tashkurgan was used for the opening kite duel scenes, the Pomegranate tree, and the Taliban compound where Amir meets Sohrab.

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Sly Stallone’s ‘Rambo III‘ (1988) sees the main man go to rescue a longtime friend and mentor from a Soviet prison camp in Afghanistan. Whilst in Pakistan a weapons supplier  agrees to take Rambo to a village deep in the Afghan desert where the usual carnage of such a film takes place with the Mujahideen warriors eventually supporting the hero in his mission. Peshawar in Pakistan played host to the Afghan market scene.

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The Middle-Eastern landscapes in ‘The Beast‘ (1988) were recreated in Israel (if I can be so vague to pinpoint a movies shooting locations to a whole country!). This movie, which often goes by the name of ‘The Beast Of War‘, follows a Russian tank crew during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan which finds itself separated from fellow tankers and relentless pursued by Mujaheddin fighters.

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For Timothy Dalton’s debut outing as 007 in ‘The Living Daylights‘ (1987) Afghanistan was actually filmed in the desert of Ouarzazate in Morocco which has been used in many films. The standout sequence in “Afghanistan” sees Bond escape from a Russian air base by aircraft. Whilst trying to diffuse a bomb he is attacked by henchman, Necros and as they scrap away the loading ramp opens and a net containing opium bags tumbles out of the back of the plane taking Bond and Necros with it. The net remains attached to the aircraft as the two men fight to the death clinging on to it as it hangs in the wind.

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Tom Selleck starred as a heavy drinking pilot hired by a society heiress to find her missing father in adventure-romance film ‘High road to China‘ (1983). Their journey in two biplanes takes them through six countries with mount Kamenjak near Rijeka in Croatia appearing to look like Afghanistan.

Adapted from the Rudyard Kipling short story, ‘The Man Who Would Be King‘ (1975) starred Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer. It was shot on location in Morocco with the Atlas Mountains, perennial favourite Ouarzazate as well as Glen Canyon in Utah (USA) used to replicate the historical region of Kafiristan which is now known as Nuristan in modern-day Afghanistan.

The events of the original Flashman’s exploits in Afghanistan feature in a brief flashback in ‘Royal Flash‘ (1975) with the head of the Rugby School recounting this tale. ‘Khyber Patrol‘ (1954) was about the struggle between the British army and local tribes who want help from Russia. It takes place on the Afghanistan border although the outdoor sets look remarkably similar to the ones used in many westerns of the time!

So there we have it, over a dozen movies set in Afghanistan but filmed in the likes of South Africa, Canada, China, Iceland, Jordan, Morocco, Croatia, Pakistan, Israel and the USA. Apart from the Ross Kemp series’ (and the news!) the only time I’ve seen the real Afghan landscape is in a short ten minute documentary titled ‘Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul‘ (Watch it here) which follows the lives of two young skateboarders from Afghanistan and juxtaposes the harsh reality of life in Kabul with the hopes and ambitions of the country’s children.

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Now there have been loads of war-related films and TV programmes set in Afghanistan and it is nigh on impossible to list them all here. This is just a selection of the one’s I’ve seen or know about but if you know of any others then please let me know in the comments or on twitter via @tokyo_fox

You can see previous On Screen articles by clicking on the links below:

On Screen #1 – Vietnam (Click here)

On Screen #2 – Istanbul (Click here)

On Screen #3 – Myanmar (Burma) (Click here)

On Screen #4 – Brazil (Click here)

On Screen #5 – Thailand (Click here)

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