Kabul 24: A Review

I am serving on a panel at the Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University on June 4th where I have been asked to review the documentary Kabul 24 about the rescue of Christian aid workers and their Muslim supporters who became Taliban hostages in Afghanistan in the days just prior to 9/11. Here is my review of the film.

Kabul 24 is an interesting and suspenseful documentary by director Ben Pearson and producer Michael W. Smith that defies the stereotypical categories of Christian film making and opens us up to surprising experiences of grace where we least expect them. I applaud Smith and Pearson for their willingness to shatter our expectations and help us to see Christians and Muslims in refreshing ways.

As I unwrapped the packaging of the DVD and saw Michael W. Smith’s name attached to the project, I automatically assumed that the film was going to be a “God is great, America is too, and Muslims are bad” type documentary that I would expect from a person whose music I love but whose politics and friendships generally lean to the right. Smith is a close friend of the Bush family, and I was expecting more of a politicization of the Afghanistan issue and the American war against Al Qaeda there. I was wrong on all accounts. The film makers avoided any political opinion or assertion about the American war in Afghanistan except to portray the American military as the rescuers of the Christian social aid workers. But they were the final rescuers of the missionaries, and the military deserves credit for their heroic acts on their behalf.

Given the intended evangelical target audience for this film, I also expected the documentary to portray the Christian international aid workers as courageous and faithful “crusaders for Jesus” who were confronted by the “demonic powers and principalities of the Islamic Taliban” who almost brought them down, and then some great miracle occurred that defied all reality. The film again shattered my expectations because it did not portray these Christians as naïve or obnoxious proselytizers, but as disciples who gave themselves in all manner of services and aid with respect for the Islamic beliefs of those that they served. These heroines are the kind of holistic and thoughtful witnesses that Christianity needs in Muslim cultures, and their work was not unlike that of the American Greg Mortensen who has built schools all over Afghanistan, except for a religious purpose. I was particularly moved by the powerful quotations of the Psalms and Scripture by these hostages at crucial moments in the story, and it was their description of their fear, their anger, and their prayers that made this film so powerful and unexpected for me. In one instance, the British aid worker admits that she cursed the Taliban who took them hostage. I found myself more able to relate to the former hostages because of their honesty and humanity, and I appreciate that the film makers did not protect us from this but included it as a very human but faithful story.

Finally, the film also defied my suspicions of how I assumed the film would portray Muslims for a Christian conservative viewership. As I watched the film, I was reminded of St. Paul in the book of Acts who over and over again was rescued from the Romans or from his own death by Roman guards, soldiers and public officials. Much of the last half of the book of Acts does not concern merely the heroic acts of the first Christians, but also the small and large acts of “the enemy” who came again and again to the aid of the first church. As I watched the story of the SNI aid workers, I noticed the numerous times that the hostages recalled the gracious acts of those Muslims and even Taliban that kept them warm on cold nights, provided legal defense for their case, or offered means to escape. The film’s marketing and story certainly does not emphasize this theme, as we go in search of an evangelical story of salvation and miracle, but the film does show sensitivity to the issues and the story itself provides texture and depth to a very complex Islamic faith that is not a one-sided, good vs. evil, portrayal of the rescue. I only wished that the film makers had told the story of what happened to the Muslim and Afghani hostages after the American rescue. In this way, I felt that the story was too centered on the rescue of the Christians while it ignored the fate of their Afghani counterparts and supporters.

The direction and the cinematography were first rate, and the film’s narrative arc provides enough layers and suspense that we are engaged in a story that has become quite familiar since 9/11. I particularly appreciated that the film makers show the viewer those Afghanis and Pakistanis who came to the rescue of the missionaries, and the return of the hostages to the scene of their devastation also adds a powerful dimension to the film.

Unfortunately, the documentary treads into familiar territory with a story that we have heard over and over in one version or another during this decade. By the time of the film’s release, many Americans had tired of the Afghan war and their fascination with the Taliban. I suppose this partially explains the little attention that the documentary has received in major media markets, along with its evangelical leanings. Despite its marketing problems and the assumptions others may share about the film, the documentary tells a very human but faithful tale that should be heard by a broader group of Christians and the popular culture. It defied my expectations and reminded me again that God’s gracious miracles often come from the most unexpected places, even the US military and some Afghani Muslims in Kabul.

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