Saeed Taji Farouky has carved out something of a reputation for directing and producing documentaries that are visually arresting and pack a punch. Tunnel Trade (2007), about Gaza’s illegal underground smuggling economy, was nominated for a Rory Peck Award, while The Runner (2013), about an activist and athlete from Western Sahara, garnered high praise and was a finalist in the Social Impact Media Awards. Tell Spring Not to Come This Year is a co-production with Michael McEvoy.
When NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2013 the Afghan National Army (ANA) took over control of Helmand Province, where they endure frequent attacks from Taliban fighters. The previous year McEvoy had worked with the British Army in the region and he wanted to document what it was like for the ANA after the foreign forces left. Farouky and McEvoy were embedded with an ANA unit over the course of a year and their film follow the fortunes of the soldiers and, in particular, Cmdr. Jalaluddin and Pvt. Sunnatullah. The soldiers have mixed feelings about the withdrawal of NATO troops. Some are relieved and are keen to defend their own land. Others feel abandoned and are concerned that they don’t have the right equipment and that they have been deserted at a particularly difficult time. Most feel a bit of both. Farouky captures the soldiers’ daily existence on the army base; the cramped dormitories, the table tennis, the phone calls home, the camaraderie and the shared laughter.
For many ordinary Afghans living in poverty, joining the army offers them the opportunity to better themselves, to earn a regular income and support their families back home. So it is all the more shocking when we learn that they have not been paid their salary for nine months. Over-burdened administration, complex bureaucracy, willful mismanagement or embezzled funds? It’s never made clear. What is evident is the men’s courage as they attempt to keep the peace and come under fire. Their fear is often palpably caught on Farouky’s camera. The bravery of Farouky and McEvoy is also evident when they are filming dangerous operations or when they are shot at as they follow the soldiers in retreat. In one telling scene, we hear the ragged breath of the cameraman as he runs after the soldiers under fire. When he reaches the safety of the vehicle sent to pick them up, the men’s adrenalin is palpable. The camera is immediately trained on one of the soldiers – the look of fear and relief on his face is a frank projection of the cameraman’s own.
It’s this humanity that keeps us engaged throughout. Farouky captures the beauty of the landscape, despite the ravages of war, and he recognises the importance of the small moments that linger with you – the soldiers’ care for the Mynah bird that makes the barracks its home, for instance, or Jalaluddin’s love of literature. The film’s title comes from a poem by Khaliullah Khalili, which Jalaluddin recites. As well as giving ordinary Afghan soldiers a voice, Tell Spring Not to Come This Year offers a valuable window on the reality of life in the ANA, amply illustrated by the distrust of villagers caught between the Taliban and the army, and the desire of the soldiers to rebuild their country and earn a decent living.