The teacher tells the children that angels are made of light. We can’t seem them, but looking down from heaven, they can see us. In the bombed out capital of Kabul, all the children see when they look up is a giant white blimp launched and tethered by the Infidels, supposedly for taking pictures and spying on them. Who are the Infidels? Right now they are the Americans, but not too long ago they were the Taliban, and before them the Soviets who’d assassinated the assassins of the coup leader who overthrew their benevolent and beloved king, Mohammed Zahir Shah. Since the golden era of King Shah’s rule, Afghanistan has writhed in a state of perpetual warfare and occupation, and the city once cherished as a desert jewel of gardens and palaces now struggles to keep itself from collapsing from foreign interference and internal unrest. And above it all, that blimp, a veritable eye of the angels themselves that waits and watches in silence.
The blimp is a constant presence in James Longley’s documentary Angels Are Made of Light, a devastating look at Kabul’s Daqiqi Balkhi School for young children and the environment in which they grow and learn. Though shot over a space of several years, the blimp is ubiquitous, popping up in the far corners of the frame at unexpected moments, as if it were hiding. It behaves as a manifestation of the pressures perpetually hanging over the heads of these children. Though Longley tries to cast a wide gaze upon the School, he ends up focusing primarily on two young boys. The first is Rostam, the son of a tinsmith and mechanic who detests physical labor and dreams of getting an education. But when he goes to school and studies, he doesn’t work and when he doesn’t work, his family struggles to eat. Only the tentative peace governing Kabul keeps enough food on their plates to allow him to study, but the ensuing election for a new president promises the very violence and unrest that might make that impossible. The other is Nabiullah, one of Rostam’s classmates. He works a food stand selling grilled liver with his father, a gray-haired ex-Mujahideen who once commanded a unit of seventy fighters who protected an entire village from the Soviets. Together Rostam and Nabiullah represent, respectively, the stunted present of Afghanistan and its inescapable past, the first yearning for a future made nearly impossible by neo-imperialism, the second living in the shadow of the sectarian violence that’s kept their country in a cycle of violence for decades.
Still they study, first in a ramshackle ruin, then in a pristine and modern schoolhouse donated by Americans. Their education centers on religious studies and languages: we hear the boys—and it’s almost always the boys as there are only two or three scenes of girl students—learning Islamic theology and lessons in Pashto and English. It’s a curious blend of the idealistically religious and the immediately practical as they live in a country of one religion yet many peoples, languages, and cultures. Yet there’s little if any footage of them learning math or science. It’s almost as if the need to grapple with the weight of their geo-political nightmare is so important it makes these other pursuits superfluous. But the boys attend to it with a vigor, as do their tireless teachers as they work with too few supplies and too many students.
Longley’s film is not an optimistic one. How could it be? It shines a compassionate, awe-filled light on a community doing its best to improve itself and educate its young—yet it never loses sight that this endeavor might be a pointless one as political unrest might raze their city and decimate their population at any moment. It’s a slow-motion Sisyphean struggle, and Longley is too committed to these people to lie and sugar-coat things. As long as the Infidel’s blimp drifts above them, the angels will remain silent in their unreachable heavens.