Like his previous film, Iraq In Fragments, James Longley’s Angels Are Made of Light offers a visually stunning look at a country damaged by war and American occupation. In this case, he begins with a school in Kabul, Afghanistan. While avoiding on-screen interviews, he lets three brothers, Sohrab, Rostam and Yaldash, speak, as well as their teachers. A larger picture of contemporary Afghan life spirals out from there, with the introduction of historical footage of 20th-century life in the country at half-hour intervals. For a documentary, Angels Are Made of Light pays an unusual amount of attention to sound design (mixed in Dolby Atmos) and lighting.
StudioDaily: You can tell from the very title of Angels Are Made of Light how important the lighting is to it. It’s one of the only documentaries whose lighting made me think of [director Josef] von Sternberg. I was wondering how you created that effect. Did you use artificial light?
James Longley: It’s an interesting question, because there isn’t any artificial light at all. I didn’t have any gaffers. When I was filming in the school, it was just me with a camera, and one Afghan person recording sound. That was the whole crew.
In that case, did you frame it in any particular way to get certain effects, particularly the beautiful images of light flooding through windows?
I just think that’s the way sunlight looks. It’s a nice place to film, in a way, because it’s not too close to the equator. I guess what your question is really about is the idea behind the cinematography. I filmed it in this way with something in mind. When we showed this film at the Telluride Film Festival and New York Film Festival, a group of students came. A lot of the people who watched it didn’t pick up on the fact that it’s a documentary. They thought it must be made with actors. It’s not, of course, but it feels like that because no one looks at the camera. So there’s a feeling that, like in fiction, you’re in the scene and the camera never shakes, like it might in an observational documentary. The style is definitely fiction, but the actual content is all documentary.
The level of craft and polish is very noticeable. Since you brought up fiction, have you thought about moving into a hybrid film or making a narrative film?
Of course, I’ve thought about it, but so far I’m attracted to the real world. There’s enough interesting things in it that it’s not necessary to make it up. It may be simpler in a way. It takes less time to make it than telling everyone what to do. I was in Afghanistan for three-and-a-half years, filming for three years. I had all this time for people to get used to me, so they didn’t look at the camera. At the end of the day, I had 500 hours of video, which got edited down into two hours. A lot of that was people talking about the camera or looking into it. But there’s also tremendous amounts of beautiful material and developed characters that wound up on the cutting room just because of the length.
Especially in the first half hour, the sound is often disconnected from the image of the person on-screen. What inspired that technique?
All that sound you hear as voiceover actually is interviews. We would take the teachers and little kids to studios and record them in little tiny, isolated booths around Kabul, intended for musicians. We recorded the interviews there with a studio microphone and edited down. There were 8,000 pages of transcript. I recorded about 100 interviews and translated all of them. Then we picked out the pieces that were most interesting and used them as narration. It feels scripted because of that voiceover. I asked people questions like, “What do you think will happen in the future in Kabul?”
When Westerners make films in the global South, there’s always the danger of misery-porn or completely defining a country like Afghanistan in terms of war and occupation. Your film strikes a balance of acknowledging war and poverty without defining the Afghan people by them. Did you find that hard?
Of course, it is really difficult. I didn’t want to make a film which would be an outsider’s perspective on Afghanistan, objectifying it in some way. I wanted to have a film which felt like it was made from an Afghan point of view, expressing something real about how Afghans see the world. Part of that is just spending so much time in the country. I gained enough experience to know how life is there and spent my time asking ordinary people how they think. That’s a perspective we don’t normally hear in this country. We normally hear from politicians and we’ll hear about talks going on with the Taliban, but we’ll never hear what ordinary people think. Any time you have a situation with an absence of information, it’s an opportunity for a filmmaker to open it up for an audience. I wouldn’t make this film if I thought someone else had already made it in some way. It’s never good to spend years of your life duplicating the work of other people. I’m always trying to find a way to give the audience something they don’t already have. I want Americans to be able to watch this film and get information they don’t have any other way of knowing: exactly what it looks like in daily life. It shows that place and people as really normal. Most documentaries are made by people who want to expose something about their own community and society. Afghan filmmakers do the same thing. The role of documentary is usually making critical films about ourselves. But in this case, I’m doing the same thing, but I’m not trying to criticize Afghan society. I’m trying to fix a problem in American society where we don’t see Afghanistan as it really is. It’s a problem with our own perception.
Did you set out specifically to make it for American audiences?
The first audience I made it for was an Afghan one. I wanted them to watch it and think “This film is true, this film is respectful towards us.” That’s my number-one audience. Beyond that, it’s not only for a Western audience. It could be a Chinese audience. But I know it will be seen by an American audience.
You show Islam as part of everyday life in ways that are very matter-of-fact, but there’s one scene that seems quite extreme to me when men are whipping themselves bloody in a ceremony. However, there’s always an underlying respect for the religion.
That scene is part of a ritual in Shia Islam. They have a thing called Ashura, where self-flagellation is a tradition. But you can see the same kind of things in Christianity, where people get nailed to a cross or crawl on their hands and knees. They’re in other religions as well. It’s a symbol of self-sacrifice. I know that a Western audience will look at that and it will seem really foreign and strange. I felt it was important to include it because insofar as the film is made for an Afghan audience, it discusses issues like the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The point that’s stressed, because we have both Sunni and Shia people in the film, is that they’re both brothers. The film expresses a desire for sectarian unity. It might not come across to everyone in an American audience, who’s not versed in the particulars of Islamic faith. That’s also one of the reasons Afghans have tended to like the movie, because they agree with that.
What led to your choice of ambisonic surround and mixing in Dolby Atmos?
I really wanted to record three-dimensional audio, to make it sound like you’re more in the place. I’m not sure I got what I wanted out of the sound mix. We had limited time. My idea on recording and mixing the sound was putting the audience in the environment, instead of making them feel like they’re looking through a window.
You brought an Afghan boy into a recording studio to record him saying “Teacher” in Dari. How much sweetening did you do in post-production?
The whole film is observational, and nothing was scripted. I didn’t tell anyone what to do. But there was one moment where we wanted to have the old teacher, Nik Mohammed, teach a class. We wanted to show his memories and then archival material of the communist revolution happening. We wanted him to be in his class, hearing a student say “Teacher! Teacher!,” and that pulls him out of his reverie. We just didn’t have the sound of a kid saying that, clean by itself. So we actually found an Afghan kid in Copenhagen who was the right age and recorded it. That’s the only thing in the film which isn’t real.
What happened with the film you tried making in Iran?
Nothing. I just wasn’t able to complete it. I tried making the same kind of film I made in Afghanistan in Iran and Pakistan. In Iran in 2009, there was the green uprising around the presidential elections. They were disputed elections. A lot of people didn’t believe the results. The government decided to cancel the visas of all the journalists who were in the country at the time. Even though I had been in Iran over a year and my film wasn’t about the elections at all, I still got kicked out of the country. So I moved it to Pakistan. I got kicked out there around scandals that happened around the assassination of Osama bin Laden. They also kicked out a lot of American passport-holders in 2011. So this film could have been about Iran or Pakistan. I did start the same kind of film in those countries.
Your three features are all about the Middle East or Central Asia. You studied Russia in college. How do you wind up making films in the region?
My first international experience was in the Soviet Union before it collapsed. I lived in Russia for three years in the 1990s. That’s really my foreign language. I started making a film in the Gaza Strip before 9/11 happened, in the winter and spring of 2001. 9/11 happened while I was editing it. It made me think this is an important region. Americans need to know about it. When I finished the Gaza Strip film, the U.S. had already invaded Afghanistan and was about to invade Iraq. So I wanted to make a film about Iraq, because it was the biggest thing happening in foreign policy. We do these things as a country, like invading other countries, but our weakness is that the American public doesn’t have a deep knowledge of them. If we want to call ourselves a democracy, the American public can’t just know about domestic policy. We have to know whether or not we approve of it as individuals, because we’re going to vote for politicians who put it in place. It’s important to have an educated population, and films can be part of that. Most people aren’t going to read a book about Afghanistan, but they might watch a two-hour film. I don’t want to make films that aren’t needed. I want to make films that people can gain a better understanding from. We’re afraid to get a plane ticket and go to Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran, but we still need to know about those places. Journalists or whoever still have to get on that plane and go there and bring back information. We can’t just send the military and never know anything about what’s going on. Otherwise, we’re not really a democracy anymore, just an uninformed mass.
But don’t you think everyone who’d go to an arthouse to see a documentary about Iraq or Afghanistan is sympathetic to your ideas?
Once you make a film, you put it out into the world and can’t control it anymore. And you also can’t control how people perceive it. I know everyone sees their own film. It’s just the way humans are. If people have a preconceived belief system that they’re never going to alter, there’s nothing you can do as a filmmaker. But look at a country like Afghanistan. I think in the minds of most Americans, Afghanistan is a blank slate or white page. We have certain ideas about it and maybe we’ve seen something in the news. But in general, Americans just don’t know. Americans think Afghans go to work on camels and speak Arabic. So that blank slate can be filled in a little bit. I can show what it’s like to be there, what people’s attitudes are like, how they interact with each other, what the culture is like. I’ve studied this, and this is my passion. I feel like it has some use in society. It’s not some Avengers movie whose sole purpose is to generate revenue for the investors and creators. I’m addressing things that are in the real world. I just think that’s important enough to do even if you never make a dollar from it. You should do it for other people.
Angels Are Made of Light opens at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday, July 24, and at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, NM, on Friday, July 26. For more showtimes, see the official website. For more details on the project, see the detailed Q&A at James Longley’s website.
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