The first thing you might recall upon emerging from Ibrahim Nash’at’s mesmerically disturbing “Hollywoodgate” – once you’ve chipped away the ice forming over your heart – is just how little beauty it contains. This is not an idle aesthetic observation. From the large-scale industrial brutalism of the eponymous abandoned US airbase in Kabul, to a snatched shot of a Talib beating a burqa-clad woman on the street, to the frequent, petty acts of littering and despoliation, the ugliness is very much the point.
The Taliban are unusual amongst reigning regimes in not even paying lip service to the idea that a government should cherish the people, or indeed the territory it governs, and this remarkable film shows in stark terms the sheer contempt they have for anything beyond the perpetuation and enlargement of their own influence. The power of documentary filmmaking often lies in discovering seams of humanity running though even the bleakest environments. But the sledgehammer impact of “Hollywoodgate” comes from director Nash’at peering into the Taliban leadership’s inner circle for a year and finding not even a glimmer of goodness. Finding, in fact, nothing — a terrible emptiness.
Just how Egyptian journalist and filmmaker Nash’at gained such unprecedented access to one of the most forbiddingly secretive cabals in the world, is a story of persistence worthy of a movie of its own. But it is mere prologue to “Hollywoodgate” which begins after the briefest contextualization through Nash’at’s own soft-spoken, heartsore voiceover, on his first day of filming. It is August 31st, 2021, the day after the last US soldier left Afghanistan. Via a labyrinthine process, Nash’at has been allowed, under strict, unmistakably hostile guard, to follow and film two men now operating out of the base: ambitious Talib lieutanant Mukhtar, and, unbelievably, his distant superior Malawi Mansour, the head of Afghanistan’s Taliban-controlled air force. So, just as the gaze of the world is withdrawn from the nation along with the last of the American troops, that of Nash’at’s embattled camera zeroes in on the mess they they left behind.
The mess is very literal. Early scenes feature Mansour walking with an entourage of yes-men through the facility, taking in beer-stocked fridges still with jokey laser-printed notes sellotaped to their shelves and smashed computers strewn across prefabricated office spaces, often bizarrely strewn with broken eggs. But the living/working quarters don’t merit that much of Mansour’s mercurial attention. Instead, a warehouse stocked with crates of medicine and most importantly, the airfield with its fleet of hastily sabotaged choppers and planes, cause him to crow “The Americans have left behind a treasure trove.” He sets his underlings to work on repairing the aircraft, though initially at least, it seems unlikely that such ill-equipped and haphazardly trained workers will be able to do so, just as it seems, surely, deeply improbable that the Americans would have left anything of value in even remotely salvageable form. In fact, we later learn, the US left over $7bn worth of military equipment in Afghanistan.
In parallel, we spend time with Mukhtar, as he runs errands for Mansour. Like all the low-ranking Taliban on the base, he is deferential towards his his amir (leader), proudly displaying photos of them together and talking openly to Nash’at about his desire to rise through the hierarchy to a position of greater power and responsibility. Partly this is a natural desire for personal advancement, but partly it is motivated by revenge for his brother who was killed by US soldiers, and at whose graveside Mukhtar reaffirms aloud his vow that “all my military victories will be for you.” He even mentions that his most dearly held fantasy — recounted with the dreamy demeanor of one expressing a beautiful flight of fancy — is of being dropped into a squadron of American soldiers with a loaded machine gun and killing as many as possible before himself being “martyred.”
Mukhtar is a diehard Talib, but at times his religious zealotry seems to be more pragmatic than we might at first assume. He tells a comrade a joke that compares a woman without a veil to an unwrapped chocolate that has fallen on the floor, because who – as in what man – would want to eat such a thing? But when his friend asks him directly if he believes in the Sharia Law tenet of women covering up, Mukhtar hesitates long enough that Nash’at cuts before we hear his reply, if he ever gave one.
Mukhtar may be lower-ranking, but he is charismatic, articulate and intelligent. These are qualities Mansour, who appears to have some difficulty with even staggeringly simple arithmetic, cannot equivalently boast, while he boasts about everything else: how hard he is working, how cunning he is being and even how his wife is a very talented doctor, whom, he quickly amends, he obviously forced to quit practising as a condition of their marriage. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Nash’at’s thoroughly scary film is the way his camera sees through the sycophancy and favor-currying that surrounds the air force general — and sees right out the other side, there is so little of substance there.
“Hollywoodgate,” the name of the base’s main access point initially seems like a strange title, but there is a sense in which it’s highly appropriate: everyone is performing here, from Mansour, when he makes one of his muddled speeches to the troops to his entourage with their practised obsequiousness, the the troops themselves, shifting uncomfortably in their ill-fitting military fatigues like they’re in costume. And of course Nash’at himself must also be performing, as he delivers what has to be one of the most audacious acts of near-kamikaze bridge-burning in recent memory. Yet still there remains the borderline inexplicable, incredible fact of his continued access for that long a period, which can ultimately only be accounted for by the sobering realization that on some level this footage, and all the ugliness, inhumanity and viciousness it exposes, is what the Taliban wanted us to see.