comscore On TV, an Afghan unit challenges tradition | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

On TV, an Afghan unit challenges tradition


KABUL, Afghanistan » They break up child suicide-bomber rings, take down drug lords and government ministers (even when they are the same thing) and kick in doors to rescue kidnapped diplomats — all with little or no help from the Americans and NATO.

Two men and two women, they are part of an elite Afghan police unit known as Eagle Four, whose exploits have made them so famous that team members are stopped on the streets of Kabul and congratulated — when they are not fielding death threats from the Taliban.

OK, occasionally they may skirt the letter of Afghan law, Jack Bauer-like, but only to thwart terrorists’ mass murder plots.

"A lot of people come up and say, ‘I wish our national police were all like you guys,"’ said one of them, Najebullah Sadiq.

They are, in short, too good to be true, which they are not.

"Eagle Four" is a popular new police show on Tolo TV here, financed largely by U.S. Embassy "public diplomacy" money in an effort to raise the esteem in which Afghans hold their much-maligned police force.

Unfortunately, life is still a long way from imitating art on Kabul’s mean streets.

The real unit most similar to Eagle Four in concept is probably the Sensitive Investigations Unit, which since summer has effectively had its hands tied by the Afghan government after it and another U.S.-trained elite unit were involved in the arrest of a presidential aide.

The Eagle Four team is also co-ed, which is unheard of here. Most of the tiny handful of female Afghan police officers are afraid to even go into local police stations for fear of sexual assault by their colleagues. Even the actresses in the show have had problems from their families over the story line, in which one falls for one of the other members of the unit. Afghan-style, he asks her dad’s permission to marry.

Real Afghan police officers remain at or near the bottom of the prestige scale in Afghanistan. Their ranks are riddled with drug addicts, and corrupt officers are the norm; 80 percent are illiterate. Even their most elite units are still classified by their NATO trainers as dependent on coalition partners to run any major operations.

"Eagle Four" is not only a propaganda exercise, but also a training one, its financers say. "It is a bit of both," said David Ensor, director of communications for the U.S. Embassy here. "To help build capacity in the nascent Afghan film and TV industry, and if it sets a standard for police work that is something to aspire to, great."

Officials at Tolo TV’s production unit would not comment on the show’s financing, and Ensor declined to say how much public diplomacy money the show received.

Four weeks into the first 13-part series, the show has been building a devoted following, and cast members are indeed often stopped on the streets — and sometimes get death threats from the Taliban, who are of course the main antagonists.

The show seems to take place in a kind of parallel universe, one where Americans and Europeans are never seen and where the Afghans are as confident as they are competent — not to mention stunningly computer literate in a country that has yet to get hard-wired onto the Internet.

Filming, which concluded last week, has been a challenge. A group of Australians in their 30s with TV backgrounds was hired to teach a bunch of younger Afghans producing, directing and writing. With many of the filming locations on the streets of Kabul, it was a series of misadventures.

Real police officers came to arrest them on a shoot on the grounds of a ministry building; they left just in time to avoid arrest. Another day, a conservative mullah upset about the mixed cast and crew was gathering a mob at the mosque to march on them; they had five minutes to pack up the set and flee.

The biggest problem they had was with women’s roles. Filming night scenes — anything after 5 p.m. — ran into objections from the actresses’ husbands and fathers. One had not told her family she had a part, and after the program was shown they forced her to quit, leaving a subsequent scene half done.

The writers solved that by killing off her character, and then the executive producer, Trudy Tierney, donned a burqa to finish the role.

Some things came naturally. Karima Hassan, who does the cast’s makeup, learned her trade from YouTube instructional videos. But when it came to doing bomb victims, experience helped.

"We have a lot of explosions in Afghanistan, people blown into several pieces," she said.

On the last day of shooting last week, on a residential street in the Wazir Ahbar Khan neighborhood, Hassan had turned Eagle Four’s police chief and father figure, Chief Amin, played by Latif Qanaat, into a bloody mess. Like most of the actors, Qanaat has a day job; he teaches Dari and Pashto at a high school. "If my wife sees me like this, she’ll have a coma," he said.

Loosely modeled on "24," the show has piggy-backed on that Hollywood production’s widespread popularity here, improbable as the translation might be.

Sadiq plays the Eagle Four team leader Kamran and runs a restaurant and hotel in Jalalabad between shoots. Kamran is the Jack Bauer figure, a tough interrogator brow-beating a captured would-be suicide bomber into confession with lines like, "You didn’t make it to paradise today." Sadiq says the show gives his real-life colleagues something to aspire to. "As an Afghan, I wish and hope they would become as good as what we see on the show."

Not everyone is a fan. Yama Tanha, 22, a shopkeeper, has watched all four episodes shown so far (the latest last Thursday), but says he is still not impressed by "Eagle Four." "It’s about as realistic as ‘Tom and Jerry,"’ he said.

Then again, the same could be said of "24."


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