HBO Max documentary Escape from Kabul is distressing. Difficult to watch. And perhaps an essential piece of journalism. Director Jamie Roberts follows his equally rugged HBO doc Four hours in the Capitol with this concise chronicle of the evacuation of Kabul in late August 2021, an event immediately labeled a “humanitarian catastrophe” and a scene of “complete chaos”. The 17-day ordeal marked a strange, violent and tragic end to America’s 18-year war with Afghanistan, and those final days are described here in painful detail by those who experienced it on the ground.
ESCAPE FROM KABUL: STREAM OR SKIP?
The core: In 2020, President Trump declared that the war in Afghanistan would soon end, and President Biden set the UKTN for August 31, 2021. On August 15, US Marines arrived at the Kabul airport to begin the evacuation of Afghans from the country — and the following day, Taliban forces captured the capital without encountering resistance from the existing Afghan regime. Mass panic ensued. Thousands of residents flooded the airport, climbed fences, pushed through gates and soon crowded the tarmac, preventing planes from taking off and landing. In the city, heavily armed Taliban men happily fired their cannons into the air in victory.
Marines and Afghan residents tell first-hand about the horror at the airport – and perhaps shockingly, Taliban leaders are also interviewed, and they speak with glee at having defeated their nemesis, the high-tech US military forces, with their primitive means. . Marines tell how clearing the airport was an outright brawl; how they shot lost Taliban soldiers who had sneaked into the airport; how the lack of security inspired extreme paranoia, as anyone with a bomb could easily access the premises. Afghan special forces were called in to help, and they secured the runway by running over people with trucks or shooting them outright. A Taliban leader tells how they surrounded the airport with “1,000 suicide bombers”. Afghan women citizens share their fear of a country under Taliban rule that would destroy their civil rights and freedom to work and study.
Talking heads cut through the expansive and debilitating footage of the crowd of people at the airport, where numbers increased from 10,000 to 24,000 overnight. Marines are horrified at having to work side by side with Taliban soldiers after the two governments agreed to help each other meet Biden’s August 31 UKTN. People stood knee-deep in a sewer canal in the scorching heat, holding up their children and passports for overwhelmed and excited Marines to see. Some died of heat and hunger. Some soiled themselves because they couldn’t move and had nowhere else to go. A Marine says women gave birth there on the sidewalk and watched their newborns die before their very eyes. Children were graciously pulled from the crowd by Marines. Families were separated, many were never reunited. A threat from the terrorist Islamic State materialized when a car bomb exploded, killing dozens and dozens. A huge C-17 transport plane rolls down the runway to take off, with men clinging to the sides; we watch from a distance as they fall from the plane and go to their deaths.
Which movies will it remind you of?: Escape to Kabul is very much cut from the same fabric as Four hours in the Capitolboth share a cheeky you-are-there perspective full of images that are incredibly hard to shake.
Achievements worth watching: No gigs here. Just brave testimonies from Afghan civilians and marines that you can only hope find peace after such a trauma.
Memorable Dialogue: “It felt like I was in a dream.” – A Taliban leader shares how he felt the day they returned to power in Afghanistan
Gender and skin: No.
Our opinion: Some won’t like how Roberts gives Taliban members and leaders a platform to speak up – a few aren’t shy about expressing their anti-American views, and one says he joined the Taliban after US troops killed two of his family “slaughtered” members – but the story wouldn’t be complete without their point of view on the events of August 15-31. In any case, their comments support the argument that they are double-hearted, militant extremists with twisted and regressive moral views; that disgust you feel towards them only reinforces our empathy for the Afghan residents who were willing to give up everything they had and risk their lives to go to that airport and flee the country. (In Four hours in the CapitolRoberts similarly gave voice to Trump supporters who took part in the uprising.)
Escape from Kabul stands at arm’s length from the material as you do while pursuing the purest reportage. And at times, the tragedy and emotional intensity of the testimonies extend well beyond that arm, which is why the film is more than just a cold repetition of a timeline of events, but an assertion of its thesis: This was a humanitarian crisis. Roberts avoids the political context, and pretty much everything that happens outside that airport, and stays focused on those who were on the ground. Those people are not talking about being forever changed by the experience in all sorts of ways – the trauma of violence and witnessing great suffering, being separated from a loved one, or losing some of what should be basic human rights – but we are damn sure know it to be true.
Our call: FLOW IT. Escape from Kabul captures an important historical moment with poignant intensity, as the best documentaries do.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
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