Taliban documentary shows value of Al Jazeera America

Upstart channel is more than the sum of its ratings

March 16, 2014|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

Six months in, there is more to say about Al Jazeera America than that its ratings stink. But that's about the only thing I see written about the Qatar-owned cable channel these days.

The ratings are minuscule — about one-half the audience that Al Gore's wreck of a channel, Current TV, was drawing before Al Jazeera bought it in 2013 to gain access to American homes.

As of last month, Al Jazeera America was averaging about 10,000 viewers at any given time of the day, while CNN had 272,000, MSNBC 349,000 and Fox News 924,000. But it is important to understand that Al Jazeera America is only in 50 million to 55 million of the nation's 110 million homes. The others are in twice as many.

And given that the deep pockets in Qatar promise Al Jazeera America plenty of time to find an audience, I believe there are more important viewer-oriented stories for media critics to tell about the upstart channel than those written in the horse-race language of Nielsen ratings.

Is Al Jazeera America expanding the diversity of American TV with its programming, as some of us have hoped since the purchase of Current was announced? And does it look like the channel will become a true alternative for the kinds of news and information that U.S. viewers might not be able to find anywhere else on television?

In partial answer to those questions, I offer the documentary "On the Frontlines with the Taliban," premiering at 9 p.m. March 21 on Al Jazeera America. A second part, "This Is Taliban Country," is scheduled for 9 p.m. March 28.

As opposed to much American network and cable reporting on the fighting in Afghanistan, which is told from within a compound or fort looking out, this film is told from within the ranks of the insurgents. It opens with the camera among a ragged group of Taliban soldiers as they attack an Afghanistan army post. The sound of drones and NATO warplanes is overhead.

The documentary defines reporting from the ground-up, versus top-down. Instead of talking to PR-prepped generals and government officials back in their safe offices, this film gets down in the dust of the battlefield and captures the foot soldiers in all their fervor, bluster, frustration, finger-pointing, hope and fear as they launch an attack and then see it go mostly wrong.

American audiences have been offered some excellent on-the-ground battlefield storytelling out of Afghanistan in "Restrepo," the 2010 documentary by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington. The filmmakers followed American troops on a 15-month deployment in the Korangel Valley and captured profoundly touching moments.

But this is the first time I've seen the war from the other side with this kind of immediacy and detail — and that is thanks largely to the nerve, skill and sense of mission of Nagieb Khaja, a Danish journalist with Afghan roots who embedded with the Taliban to make this film for Al Jazeera's "Fault Lines" series.

That's the same series, by the way, that in 2012 produced "Baltimore: Anatomy of an American City," as honest and clear-eyed a look at this city as any outside TV news organization has ever done. But because there was no Al Jazeera America at the time, Baltimore viewers could only see it online. While I long admired Al Jazeera for its Middle East reporting, I only came to understand how enriched American media would be by its on-the-street reporting after seeing the Baltimore film.

"Documentaries are an important part of our programming because they give deep detail to important and controversial topics, which allows the audience to fully understand a complex story," Al Jazeera America Senior Vice President Shannon High-Bassalik said in an email. "This documentary in particular is an eye-opening look at how the Taliban are already ruling parts of Afghanistan, just outside the capital, and how their tactics have changed since being chased out of central power."

"On the Frontlines" is not Khaja's first project on Afghanistan. The 34-year-old journalist says he has been reporting on the country since 2004.

In 2008, Khaja says, he was captured by the Taliban and held hostage for a week before being freed. On a later foray into the war-torn country, he brought along 30 digital cameras, gave them to Afghan citizens and asked them to film their lives. The result, a 2012 documentary titled "My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone," transcends Western stereotypes as it takes viewers inside the harsh day-to-day reality of living in the midst of death and destruction.

In a telephone interview from Denmark last week, Khaja said he feels the West has a poor understanding of the country America has been fighting in for the last 12 years. And he believes the West knows next to nothing about the Taliban, who are poised in some regions of the country to try and take control once U.S. troops depart. He believes that comparisons to America's misadventure in Vietnam are inescapable.

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