If you witnessed the chaos unfold in Kabul airport two years ago, it probably won’t come as much of a surprised to learn the US Army left a helicopter or two in Afghanistan. More alarming might be the news, calmly delivered at the start of this profoundly unreassuring documentary, that the cache of weapons and equipment that remains is estimated to be worth somewhere in the region of $7,000,000,000. In Hollywoodgate, an out-of-competition premiere at the Venice Film Festival this week, the Egyptian journalist and filmmaker Ibrahim Nash’at risks life and limb to achieve the improbable: nestling his way in with the Taliban fighters in charge of an abandoned U.S. base and observing their attempts to utilize what the Army left behind. “The Americans left us an enormous treasure,” one General observes; Nash’at’s film offers a worrying insight into what they might decide to do with it all.
As far as gaining access goes, there are coups and there are coups. Using a CV of interviews with world leaders, Nash’at (a journalist for Deutsche Welle and Al Jazeera) made contact with Taliban leaders in the hope of landing an interview in the days following their return to power––but after flying to Kabul they stopped answering his calls. Only when a translator suggested they visit Hollywood Gate, an abandoned US airbase in Kabul, did he meet his two subjects: Mukhtar, a former Taliban fighter looking to move up the ranks; and Mansour, the newly minted head of the Afghan airforce. In exchange for Mansour’s permission, Nash’at’ agreed to work independently (Hollywoodgate has since been supported by the team behind Navalny) and film nothing outside the base. In one narration, the director regrets this decision, but it proves a worthwhile tradeoff: shooting for over a year, Nash’at was granted unprecedented access to much of the base’s operations, big and small.
At no point are we distracted from the sense of imminent peril: “If his intentions are bad,” Mansour explains, very much in earshot, “he will die.” The ex-general quickly emerges as Hollywoodgate‘s brash, dangerously under-qualified antagonist. He peacocks at the gym. He struggles with basic arithmetic. At one point Nash’at lingers on the moment when he and his men realize they’ve allowed a mountain of invaluable medical supplies to expire. Nash’at’s approach, dry and darkly comic, at times feels closer to John Wilson than Laura Poitras. (He sets the tone at the very beginning with a shot of a Talib rooting through a fridge and finding a half-empty bottle of Fireball.) It can come off as patronizing, but it’s nothing if not effective: a constant reminder of who’s been left in charge of all this lethal hardware. That the US Army’s actions and culpability are only implied––in the opening montage we’re reminded of the Taliban’s ruthlessness before ’01 and after ’21, with nothing of the twenty years in-between––seems an oversight.
All in, this is a brave piece of filmmaking that builds to a frightening climax: Nash’at creates an image of nervous ineptitude before pummeling you with the harshest of realities. In one dizzying early moment, he enters the airfield for the first time, glimpsing the lines of airplanes and choppers abandoned mid-repair and left like the ruins of some ancient civilization. The question of whether the Taliban can fix them lingers in the background of Nash’at’s film (we see the engineers work and the pilot training), like a spectre, and when the airships do finally arrive, swooping in low above a military parade as Russian and Chinese emissaries look on, you can almost hear the director’s jaw hit the floor. For much of his remarkable film, Nash’at seems to be responding to the strange mundanity of it all with a baffled smile; but the last laugh is neither his nor ours.
Hollywoodgate premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival.