A View of Afghanistan No Longer Available

Producer & Writer: Richard Mackenzie

Director of Photography: Stephen Cocklin

Published: October 6, 2001, Saturday

Less than a year ago National Geographic sent the journalist Sebastian Junger, the photographer Reza and a film crew to Afghanistan, where they gained the kind of access that was difficult to get then and no more than a reporter's fantasy now. In the amazing film that is the centerpiece of tomorrow night's ''National Geographic Explorer,'' we see Mr. Junger crouching behind a rock and hiding in trenches from rocket fire launched by the Taliban.

He and Reza were traveling with the legendary resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated just two days before the World Trade Center attacks and whose murder is widely believed to have been ordered by Osama bin Laden. In this special we see Massoud, perpetually in combat fatigues and a crewneck sweater, sitting cross-legged on the floor and crouching over an old Soviet map as he plots his strategy against the Taliban. In interviews the camera easily captures why he was considered so charismatic: his face is sculptured in strong lines, his manner calm but forceful, his hat worn rakishly to the side in the manner of a politician who knows how to exploit his theatrical strengths.

A bizarre twist surrounding this program is that Mr. Massoud's assassins posed as television journalists, killing him with a bomb hidden in a camera. What cameras show -- and increasingly these days what they cannot show from Afghanistan, where television reporting is dangerous and scarce -- is a huge, problematic issue in the current crisis, and that context makes ''Explorer'' more valuable than ever. The program offers a visceral, intimate look at a country with a punishing geography, an archaic society and a landscape that was already wartorn.

This 40-minute segment of ''Explorer'' (at the start of the program) is substantially different from a shorter version shown in March. It has been updated, with greater emphasis on Afghanistan itself and less on the journey of Mr. Junger and Reza, who uses a single name. Mr. Junger's first-person account was more harrowing in its sense of danger, more hero-worshipping in its attitude toward Massoud and closer to the article he wrote for National Geographic Adventure magazine. (The article is included in Mr. Junger's current book, ''Fire.'' He is still best known as the author of ''The Perfect Storm.'')

Omitting so much of his voice is a loss, because the new narrative takes on an ordinary documentary tone at odds with the immediacy of the images. But those pictures remain astonishing. The Massoud soldiers look as young and raggedy as their leader looks dramatic. The image enhances what is already a major question: without Mr. Massoud to lead the Northern Alliance, the groups unified against the Taliban, how will the resistance endure?

Mr. Junger and Reza visit a small stone building, a field hospital where Mr. Massoud's soldiers have been taken after walking into land mines. And they interview a Taliban prisoner of war held by the Massoud forces who says he was trained in one of Mr. bin Laden's camps. ''We want to make Afghanistan our base and use it to spread our fundamentalism throughout the world,'' he says. ''If we fail to take Afghanistan, we'll keep on trying or we'll try for another country.

Mr. Junger and Reza also visit a refugee camp where malnourished children have sores on their mouths and whose horrific numbers have only multiplied in the past month. The bright blue tents of the camps and the vivid clothing on the people suit Reza's photographs. Like this film, so colorful it looks as set-designed as a movie, his eye-catching pictures entice viewers to look more closely at the dismal reality beneath the vibrant surface.

One of the most distressing pieces of film to appear in recent weeks is that of a veiled Afghan woman being shot in the head after being herded into a stadium where women are to be executed. That film flashes by quickly in ''Explorer'' and is more central to ''Beneath the Veil,'' a brisk, effective documentary about the persecution of women under Taliban rule (CNN).

To make ''Beneath the Veil,'' the journalist Saira Shah often relied on hidden cameras. That may increasingly become the norm, which makes the vistas of ''Explorer'' seem exceedingly rare.

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