Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media, with each month tending to focus on a particular theme. This month’s theme is surveillance.
When we think about America’s war against Afghanistan on film, we are often presented with two visions. The first is steeped in jingoistic patriotism, the young and honourable young soldiers fighting to liberate the alien land from an ungodly terror, with the indigenous population either grateful, or traitorous. The second vision shows these same soldiers as brutish, and the war as nothing more than the continuation of the American imperial conquest of the middle east. Kirsten Johnson’s The Above is probably closer to the latter, however, is not plagued by the bravado or shocking violent imagery that is often commonplace in both of the aforementioned formats, and instead explores how empiricism is often enforced through silent acts.
The Above is a documentary with a very clear subject. High above Kabul flies a balloon, attached to a tether. The balloon resembles a small zeppelin, the type you might expect to fly over a baseball field advertising a sponsor, however,the role played by this odd fixture of Kabul’s sky is much more sinister. We do not know the motive of the blimp, although it is widely accepted that this is a military surveillance balloon. Johnson gives us questions in the form of intertitles, mixed in with drone shots of the city, echoing what the ominous object might be seeing, however it is never truly known for sure. It is this lack of information that gives the filman essence of beauty.
The Above gives us an odd example of the ways in which America exerts control over countries it seemingly protects. We do not know what this drone is seeing, who it is watching or if it is armed, all we know is that it is highly classified. Its monolithic presence over the city is criticised by Johnson herself, who has stated in an interview with Field of Vision: “I saw the blimp and it blew my mind. I had no idea that we were doing that. It was so provocative to me as a visual person. The sky always feels like the territory that frees us from the complexity of human society, and suddenly to see this American thing in their sky was so shocking.” This disconnect between the American domestic portrayal of the war as liberation, and the actuality of the choking imperialism being forced upon the people of Afghanistan is something the film explores. It asks what right one nation has to do this to another, and even poses questions on how the American population would react were the tables turned.
Despite being only eight minutes long, The Above is a film that manages to pack in a litany of themes and develop them with a real lucidity. Johnson’s allusive style, the wide angles capturing the balloon’s eerie presence intercut with shots that feel as if they were from the drone’s point of view, this manages to add to the ominous feeling surrounding the balloon. An important reminder of the ruthless and unfeeling ways in which Empire will attempt to exert its control, The Above is a chilling but vital watch.