Langan Behind The Lines

Shortlisted for Bafta, Grierson Award, and One World Awards.

Behind The Lines

Langan Behind The Lines – BBC 2001

Know your enemy. A phrase that’s always been considered good advice in military circles. And surely now, at a time when we are informed by a salivating media that we are “at war” there couldn’t be a more appropriate time for us to get to grips with the political, cultural and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan.

So full marks and a medal are due to Sean Langan, undoubtedly one of our greatest investigative journalists, for his insightful and enlightening (not to mention death-defying) tour of Afghanistan, which was re-aired on BBC2 this week.

Unlike the vast majority of Western journalists (currently wetting their knickers in excitement over the ensuing military campaign in Afghanistan), Langan was determined to track down the Taliban and understand the workings of their extreme fundamental regime prior to the tragic events of September 11th. During his “Langan Behind The Lines” series (originally screened in February this year), which also included danger-fraught visits to Iran, Iraq and The Gaza Strip, Langan spent days touring the war-torn wasteland of Afghanistan and enjoying/enduring varying relations with its inhabitants.

Never one to shy away from danger, Langan set off on the first leg of his one-man mission – “Kabul Vice” – despite upsetting a camera-shy, senior Taliban official in Kabul. Defying all warnings about the use of his video camera (most filming and photography ­ including family portraits ­ are prohibited by the Taliban) Langan headed for the hills to meet the foot soldiers patrolling the countryside.

Langan’s ability to connect and converse with his interviewees was commendable from the start. He joked with them about the prohibitive laws and regulations of their leadership, while they, in turn, teased Langan about his lack of facial hair, beards are another Taliban-enforced essential. And contrary to the images of the Taliban currently being force-fed to the West, the soldiers were not the type of guys you’d strive to avoid down a dark alley ­ they were friendly, excessively hospitable and had a remarkable sense of humour. They were ordinary blokes, flaunting with the restrictive rules of their superiors, enjoying a cigarette with a Western man they were keen to get to know. A heartbreaking reminder of the country’s dire situation came when Langan joked with a baby-faced soldier about his ‘manly’ beard ­ only to find out that the young man had no idea exactly how old he was. Birth registration is hardly a necessity in a country so ravaged by poverty and war it’s miraculous when someone makes it past the age of 18.

After bringing out the best of the boys in the barracks, Langan headed back to Kabul where he was immediately summoned for a nerve-wracking show-down with the Taliban official he’d previously pissed off. Muddying the waters even more, was Langan’s discovery that all foreign journalists had been “asked” to leave the country the day before ­ on pain of death, no less. But Langan wasn’t going to take his fate lying down. Flaunting in the face of defamation, he defied his hostile hosts by smuggling a hidden camera into their offices ­ describing the ordeal as “like being sent to the headmasters office”. Langan’s gutsy determination and ability to keep a cool head ­ even when it looked like he might lose it ­ was breathtaking. I’d already gone over the edge of my seat when another Taliban official dropped by to save Langan’s bacon and diffused the situation to such an extent that the formerly austere senior was offering tea and eternal friendship. Phew.

Out of the frying pan into the fire. Next Langan made a visit to the Centre for Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue where we were introduced to the real militant muscle of the Taliban. An overly zealous religious cleric described how punishment was dished out to women who showed any part of their bodies, unmarried couples caught in unsupervised situations and men with long “European” style hair. And woe betide the Afghan who decides he doesn’t want to be a Muslim anymore. Being stoned to death seems to serve as an effective deterrent for that particular crime. But despite the severity of the cleric’s sanctimonious sermon, Langan managed to keep the atmosphere light ­ chuckling with the attendant guards and asking the cleric curious, rather than probing or judgmental, questions.

In his second programme, “Tea With The Taliban”, Langan delved even deeper into the social, moral and political layers of contemporary Afghanistan. His visit to a crumbling sports stadium outside the city where public executions have taken place was both chilling and incredibly sad. Langan was clearly relieved to get out of there ­ although he did point out that less executions have taken place in Kabul over the last few years than in Texas.

Risking his neck again, he visited a plucky young woman who was prepared to be filmed; a severely punishable offence. Although she wouldn’t answer questions, she read Langan a poem referring to the barbaric and blatantly un-Islamic treatment of women by the Taliban. No moral man or woman in the world could listen to that poem without feeling a lump in their throat. “Mohammed was weeping” she read. So were most of BBC2’s viewers.

Continuing his brave quest to talk to the women of the country Langan gained an invitation to a secret girls school. Although women’s education and employment has been banned by the Taliban, a network of underground education centres have been established and are operated by local volunteers who consequently run the risk of extreme castigation. The courage, acumen and irrepressible spirit of the English teacher he met there clearly bowled Langan over.

During his only “official” interview, Langan chatted on camera with local men in a pharmacy, which also served as a venue for social congregation. The men discussed their frustration with Western governments, who they feel offer freedom to their own citizens at the expense of the poor. Their English was impeccable, as was their political awareness. There was no fanatical sentiment, no call to bring down the West, no cravings for “holy war”. Langan found the citizens of Kabul in a state of frustration and resentment, but more than ready to explain their plight to the people of the West ­ despite the ominous ever-presence of the Taliban, who continually interrupted the proceedings.

One final trip to the front-line for Langan and this time the intrepid reporter travelled through minefields in a Taliban truck. Again, once the bosses were out of the way, the soldiers he encountered were more than happy to be filmed. ­ Langan described the last group he met as going “apeshit” in front of the lens. Watching them waving to London while posing and strutting with their weapons was heart-warming, funny and tragic in equal measures. Clearly unsettled in the densely mined desert Langan was keen to return to the (relative) safety of town, but the men insisted he stay for more talking, filming and a cup of tea, ­clearly, the Taliban are not so different from the Brits after all.

Before he left the country for the rest of his Middle-Eastern extravaganza, Langan paid a visit to Afghanistan’s other great ruler, ­the vast Opium plantations which yield a huge percentage of the UK’s heroin supply. Although, as Muslims, the majority of people in Afghanistan disagree with the use of drugs, poverty forces many Afghans to cultivate the deadly crops. The farmer/preacher Langan met in the fields was so enamoured by the friendly Western journalist that Langan was virtually forced to stay the night ­the lauded Afghan hospitality was remarkable to the last.

Although it was filmed just over a year ago, Langan’s epic journey in Afghanistan could not have been more pertinent. He dispersed myths, hacked down cultural and religious barriers and gambled with his personal safety in pursuit of the truth. After Langan’s riveting reports I was no longer unstrung by the ‘oppressive and mysterious’ country we are being encouraged to fear. Langan gave us a greater understanding of the collective, though disparate, Afghanistan psyche and a balanced insight into the real lives of its people.

Sean Langan’s programme was the most informative, conscientious and thought-provoking journalism I have seen in relation to the conflict so far. The man deserves an award of the highest order. The fact that the film was shot before the September 11th attacks only served to strengthen its impartial validity. My only complaint is that the documentary wasn’t screened on BBC1 at a peak viewing time – but then, if we come to understand our “enemy” too well, we might not be so hasty in embracing them as our adversaries.

A reposing thought indeed.


© 2001 Johanna Payton / Garbled Communications


Episode Guide

Kabul Vice – Sean Langan’s begins his journey through the Middle East in Afghanistan, where filming is dangerous – it’s against the law.

Tea With The Taliban – Second of two documentaries in which Sean Langan explores Afghanistan, which has fallen under intense media scrutiny over recent years. He experiences at first hand the strict Islamic rule imposed by the Taliban regime with its so-called ‘vice and virtue’ squads and manages to gain rare access to the country’s centre for re-educating prisoners.

Women In Black – After his visit to Afghanistan, Iran seems a relaxed and liberal place. But as Sean digs deeper, he discovers tensions just beneath the surface. The country is in a state of virtual civil war, with the new liberals a significant force despite the conservatives of the old guard currently holding power.

The Saddam Show –  In Iraq, Sean Langan finds filming extremely difficult, since he is constantly accompanied by a government minder. Having continually argued with people who make no criticism of the government, he begins to show his frustration during a visit to a religious site where thousands were massacred during an uprising.

Life’s A Beach – Sean Langan visits the Gaza strip, a small piece of land and political minefield occupied by Palestinians and surrounded by guarded Israeli settlements. He talks to the founder of the Islamic group Hamas who explains the reasoning behind the violence, and plays football with the younger generation on the beach as they take a break from their favourite pastime : throwing stones at the Israeli guards.

Langan Behind The Lines – BBC 2001