James Longley’s Angels Are Made of Light is an essential document, chronicling several seasons at the Daqiqi Balkhi School in Kabul, Afghanistan. The remnants of conflict are everywhere, even as life goes on in and around this war-torn landscape. Longley chronicles the school, which as the film begins is a grouping of tents, before it moves into an actual building, and follows several students and teachers as they navigate their day-to-day life. Children play and study and goof around, while teachers go through the routine of reading, writing, and arithmetic. There is an emphasis, despite the proliferation of religious texts, on logical, reason based thinking. The teachers are acutely aware that greed, ego, and petty differences are at the heart of much of their country’s troubles, and seem determined to push past religious and political animosity. Still, Longley is not naive, and as this school becomes a polling station for a national election, he captures plenty of arguments and flared tempers, as well as competing religious ceremonies. He’s not interested in editorializing, but the stark differences are clear enough. America has been involved in conflict in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and while Angels Are Made of Light is not specifically political, the specter of US occupation hangs over most of the people in the film. It’s a fact of life, something that exists like breathing or the weather.
Longley makes sure to reflect the beauty of the landscape and the bustling city streets, but also shows children having to choose between work and school, and watches them as they contemplate what kind of future they might have if the fighting would stop. Kabul, as depicted here, seems relatively peaceful, but the threat of conflict is constant. Longley indulges in a couple of essayistic interludes, using archival footage to fill in historical details, and while they are too brief to be particularly educational, they do illustrate a violent history that has occupied the better part of the 20th Century. At one point, someone in the film mentions that everything would be okay if only Afghans could get rid of the Taliban and America. That we’re mentioned in the same breathe should give every American pause. Longley’s film declares the humanity of a people, whom exist only in an abstract sense to most of us, in a country that is shaping their future. We must do better, their future depends on it.
Published as part of July 2019’s Before We Vanish.