Over several extended periods during 2013 and 2014, filmmakers Saeed Taji Farouky and Michael McEvoy embedded themselves with the 3rd Battalion, 3/215 Corps of the Afghan National Army (ANA). The result was the multi-award-winning film, “Tell Spring Not to Come This Year,” which was released in 2015. The film tells the story of the 3rd Battalion’s solitary struggle against the Taliban, in the wake of the mass withdrawal of NATO troops.
Farouky and McEvoy followed the troops through Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, as they sought to hold out against Taliban offensives around Gereshk and Sangin. “In simple terms, things went from bad to worse for the ANA when the NATO troops left,” McEvoy told Inside Arabia.
According to Long War Journal, around 30 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts are controlled by the government. The Taliban commands some 20 percent – mainly rural areas – with the rest of the country contested.
The film is a window into the lives of ordinary young men upon whom fate has bestowed a monumental responsibility. Front and center are the stories of Captain Jalaluddin and Private Sunnatullah.
The film touches on a diverse range of topics from counter-narcotics, to Afghan politics, to the history of Afghanistan, to infighting between government forces, to thoughts on western intervention, all of which form part of the daily lives of the Afghan soldiers.
The film refuses to rely on established narratives on any of these topics – at one point, the viewer is drawn to empathize with the elderly mother of an alleged Taliban fighter. As the soldiers arrest her son, she calls out: “I’ve got nothing else. . . . You don’t understand the feelings of a mother. I won’t leave him!” Hers is the only female voice heard in the film, with the occasional peripheral shots of Burqa-clad figures attesting to the invisibility of women in Helmand.
Never settling for easy answers, “Tell Spring Not to Come This Year” paints a vivid picture of the deeply complex situation in Afghanistan, seen through the eyes of the soldiers. Full of ingenious stylistic touches, the film finds an ideal balance between the layers of the story, leaving the viewer informed, yet hungry to find out more.
“Tell Spring Not to Come This Year” is a collaboration between Saboteur Media, Tourist with a Typewriter, and Ponda Films.
Inside Arabia (IA): Tell me about your background and how you ended up involved in Afghanistan.
Michael McEvoy (MM): I first traveled to Afghanistan as a university student in 2007 as I wanted to see and understand the country behind and beyond the media headlines about the war. I traveled from the UK on a motorcycle, hitchhiked and stayed with local families all over the country.
When I returned to Afghanistan, it was ironically with the British military as an officer and cultural liaison between UK and Afghan forces, as well as the local population. I also trained as a linguist, and a lot of my job ended up being involved in conflict-resolution, from the minor cultural misunderstandings to more serious incidents.
IA: How did you begin working with Saeed Taji Farouky? How did you get into filmmaking?
MM: While deployed in Afghanistan with the British military, I spent a lot of my time basically living with units of the Afghan Army. Seeing their daily life and slowly coming to understand many of their personal stories and their reasons for fighting, it seemed that there was a complete lack of these narratives in the mainstream international media. I felt this would be a really important story to tell.
I knew absolutely nothing about filmmaking, and I remember mail ordering a simple DIY [documentary] filmmakers handbook to the main base in Helmand. Reading that I pretty quickly realized I was going to need some help, so I emailed a friend who I knew often worked with documentary filmmakers and asked her if she knew anyone that was good at making films and didn’t mind getting shot at. ‘Oh you should definitely speak to Saeed!’ was the response, and so the partnership was born.
After the film was released in 2015, McEvoy returned to Afghanistan again to work with a humanitarian organization.
IA: Turning to the film itself, what made you focus on Captain Jalaluddin and Private Sunnatullah in particular?
MM: Jalal and I had been friends and had worked closely together when I was still in the military. When I first met him, what immediately struck me was his razor-sharp intellect and his fierceness on the battlefield. I think we chatted for about three hours the first time we met, mostly about international politics. Although he’d never traveled outside of Afghanistan and spoke basically no English, he knew more about philosophy, political theory, and international affairs than most of my university classmates.
We kept in touch after I came home, and when I started to think more seriously about the film, I bounced a lot of ideas off of him to see what he thought. We initially wanted three main characters, who would offer different perspectives on the war, would be of different ranks, and ideally be of different ethnic backgrounds—given that ethnicity, while controversial, still has significant political and social implications in the country.
Sunnatullah was a young private soldier with limited education and from a more impoverished background, and although he was also Tajik like Captain Jalaluddin, his cheeky character was hard to ignore. It was also interesting to watch him mature as an individual and as a soldier over the couple of years that we filmed.
Finally, we had hoped for a third character, Pashtun Sergeant Major Rahmatullah, who still features in the film, but not so prominently given that he was injured and out of action for two of our main filming trips unfortunately. In the end, we quite liked just having the two, as they differ quite significantly in rank, age, education, and political standpoints on the war, so it creates an interesting dyad. The goal was to make sure we avoided any simple answers, so having Sunnatullah and Jalaluddin’s opinions play off against each other we quite liked.
This contrast of opinion is central to the film’s narrative. Farouky and McEvoy do a superb job of conveying the varying viewpoints of Afghans on a range of topics, including the NATO invasion that began in 2001. The words of the Battalion Commander go some way to capturing the nuances of the combatants’ feelings about the war. “Let me tell you one thing brothers. Our international colleagues supported the army, police, and the Afghan state. They suffered a lot of casualties in Afghanistan. They spent a lot of money, they worked hard over a decade,” Captain Jalaluddin tells the 3rd Battalion. “But now they have left us. Left us alone in this mess. Our casualties are acceptable because this is our country. But when it comes to the casualties the foreigners suffered here, this is a betrayal of those young men from Europe and America. With all due respect to the dead, does the world call this ‘a service’ to Afghanistan? As an Afghan officer, it’s not a service in my opinion.”
As the Captain is speaking, Private Sunnatullah looks on with a glint in his eye. “When the Americans first came to Afghanistan, I was so happy. I thought they were here to help us,” he says in a voiceover. “But when I see them in the towns and markets, when I saw what they were doing, the truth is I hated them. They would drive in their convoys and they wouldn’t let anyone else pass. They would threaten to shoot us. They were doing bad things in Afghanistan. Why were they treating our country like that? After seeing that, I felt they should leave.”
Sunnatullah later adds: “Every country came to Afghanistan for their own personal gains. The Americans came to Afghanistan, they spent money. Billions of dollars. You think they would do that all for free? Never.”
Captain Jalaluddin gives his own, measured take on the NATO involvement as he walks through an eerie, abandoned US base. The floor is scattered with discarded items of clothing, equipment, and other objects left behind by the US soldiers, but the Afghan troops find nothing of use. The walls are spattered with graffiti. “God bless our troops, especially our snipers,” reads a sticker on one of the doors.
“America has served Afghanistan . . . in general,” says Jalaluddin. “America has facilitated the Afghan forces, to some extent. They trained us, to some extent. And now they want to pull out. . . . They should pull out. We should defend our own country. We should create our own government. This is what we want. But 2014 is not the time for the international community to abandon Afghanistan.”
“War is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” goes a saying that is believed to have originated from the trenches of the First World War. It is the endless interplay between these two forms of horror – tedium and fear – that McEvoy and Farouky capture so brilliantly in the film.
The Taliban often chose to “punctuate” the lives of the 3rd Battalion. Towards the end of the film is a sequence in Sangin, in which McEvoy and the Battalion were trapped in a compound besieged by the Taliban. The group was forced to bed down in the compound for more than two days, subsisting on a handful of energy bars and scraps of stale bread.
Despite fearing for his life, McEvoy managed to capture it all on camera, from the moment the Taliban blew off the door to the compound with an RPG, to the ensuing firefight, to the evacuation of a severely wounded sentry, to the terrified faces of the family whose lot it is to live in the compound. Despite multiple casualties to the wider Battalion, the unit escaped without casualties – even the sentry survived. But the area was lost to the Taliban.
IA: The film won several awards. How would you assess the reaction overall?
MM: The audience reaction was great. Personally, I found the variety of responses and takeaways from viewers the most satisfying, as that’s really what we wanted to show – complexity.
In particular, some of the feedback from former NATO soldiers or their families was very powerful, from mothers of those involved saying that they now understood a lot better what their sons and daughters experienced, to soldiers themselves who had such strong and fond memories of their Afghan partners being glad to see their stories told.
I would also like to add that, while the film was primarily made for the international media to put more of an Afghan voice in that narrative, some of the responses from Afghan friends was also pretty heartwarming, even if watching it brought up often difficult and complex emotions for them. A number said they understood better some of the hardships their own people were facing through watching the film.
Of course, behind all of this, is the idea that war in any form is almost always just a very painful affair, and rarely if ever worth the cost.
“Tell Spring Not to Come This Year” does not attempt to offer clear solutions. Instead, it tells the complex and tragic story of a nation in a deadlock. Everyone is trapped, from the ANA soldiers, to the farmers with no option but to grow opium often in service of the Taliban, to the young men recruited into their ranks, to ordinary civilians.
Private Sunnatullah sums it up when he says: “The locals here, they’re in the middle of a war from both sides. If they side with the government, the Taliban will kill them. If they side with the Taliban, the government will blow them up. That’s why they’re stuck.” The film is an invaluable resource in understanding this multi-layered state of inertia, in order that it may one day be overcome.