Angels Are Made of Light
Although his output is not as voluminous as that of his contemporaries in the world of human rights cinema (having made only two feature-length documentaries after his 2002 directorial debut Gaza Strip), James Longley is nearly peerless in terms of his ability to generate compassion for the plight of people who have been displaced, injured, or killed as a result of U.S. military adventurism. Following up his Oscar-nominated masterpiece Iraq in Fragments (2006), the filmmaker turns his camera toward another country in the Middle East and chronicles the day-to-day lives of those who have grown accustomed to the cruel circumstances that have put them in the cross hairs of both American soldiers and members of a resurgent Taliban. Beautifully lensed by Longley himself (over a three-year period) and bearing a title that — insinuating a kind of celestial illumination — communicates a message of hope, Angels Are Made of Light is nevertheless grounded in the gloomy realities of contemporary Afghanistan, a country whose citizens were once blessed with relative peace and prosperity but are now scraping by under figuratively dark clouds and the ever-watchful eye of a surveillance balloon floating high overhead. Despite the looming threat of war and the daily reminders — visible on faces of the shell-shocked populace as well as the pockmarked buildings in partial collapse — of recent traumatic events, people go about their business and pursue hard-won educational opportunities in hopes of restoring their beleaguered nation. Cross-cut with archival clips of Kabul as it once looked (in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was a cosmopolitan cultural hub) are scenes of young students, their parents, and teachers offering up their own views on the city as it now stands. At once sprawling or “epic” in its distribution of those scenes and narrowly focused as an intimate portrait of individuals coping with hardships, Angels Are Made of Light might be the director’s crowning achievement, unlikely to be surpassed as an artistic statement about the human costs of war. Few motion pictures so emphatically live up to the claim — articulated frequently by film critic Roger Ebert before his passing — that cinema is an “empathy machine,” capable of putting viewers into the skin of distantly observed but presently felt “others” for whom the recorded image is a means of interpersonal connection and even heavenly communion.
Written by David Scott Diffrient