TV is like the Al Jazeera of Afghanistan, except it is critical of
terrorism. Founded by Saad Mohseni, his
brothers Zaid and Jahid, and their sister Wajma to be an agent of change, TOLO
TV is first and largest media outlet in Afghanistan. For three months, filmmaker
Eve Orner documented the Mohsenis and many of their 900 employees at work and
on their guard in The Network (trailer here), which releases
on VOD platforms today.
TOLO TV sounds familiar, you might remember Havana Marking’s Afghan Star, the behind-the-scenes look
at the pop idol reality show produced by that station. Marking followed the travails of a particular
contest who faced death threats for modestly swaying to her music. Several years later, contestants regularly
show off a few non-twerking moves and often appear sans head trappings. This constitutes progress and it was made
possible by TOLO.
up in exile as a result of the Soviet invasion, the Mohsenis, especially London-born
Saad, are clearly entrepreneurs on a mission.
Arriving in Kabul with waves of returning expats, they shared the
general euphoria following the fall of the Taliban. Perceiving a need and an opportunity, they
started the radio station that would eventually blossom into the TOLO
mini-empire. It was a risky venture,
because there was absolutely no media whatsoever in the country at the
time. None. Zero.
The Islamist Taliban had forbidden such sacrilege. As one TOLO reporter dramatically recalls,
the only sanctioned form of entertainment during the regime were public
executions. Yet despite the years of
doing without, the Afghan people immediately took to TOLO’s offerings.
one hand, The Network is a success
story, charting TOLO’s growth as a business and a cultural phenomenon. However,
an uneasy pessimism hangs over the film.
The Mohsenis and their employees openly fear the consequences when the
western military powers cut-and-run.
After all, TOLO personnel have definitely become targets of the Taliban
and their allies. Orner documents many of the tight spots they just barely
survived. Ironically, some of the most
tragic episodes were instances when TOLO staffers were literally caught in the
Saad Mohseni is a media visionary. Yet,
TOLO often walks a fine line to avoid angering the Islamist element. Their answer to Dr. Phil is particularly
problematic, but one could make a case that the open criticism expressed by
TOLO’s female employees of his “just be virtuous” advice is a promising sign.
Granted, their melodramas look rather cheesy, but not as amateurish as the
grade-Z Pashto films gonzo documentarian George Gittoes produced. TOLO also challenges many pre-conceptions
viewers might hold, especially with regards to the success they have had with
their anti-terrorist cop show, partly underwritten by the U.S. embassy.
Indeed, there is little anti-American sentiment
in The Network, per se, and there is
absolutely no nostalgia for the Communist regime. This is fascinating stuff, with far reaching social,
economic, and geopolitical implications.
Orner captures plenty of telling moments and conveys a good sense of the
increasingly uncertain vibe in-country. It
is a smart doc that is all muscle and no fat.
Highly recommended for Middle East watchers and strategic thinkers, The Network is now available for VOD
Labels: Afghanistan, Documentary, TOLO TV, VOD