A heartening but tempered portrait of the media’s ability to effect social change, The Network provides an inside look at TOLO TV, Afghanistan’s first and most popular television station. Eva Orner’s documentary opens with images of Taliban men beating women on the street and carrying out public executions in the town square in order to immediately contextualize its tale, which begins in 2001 shortly after the ouster of the Taliban by Western coalition forces. That monumental event allowed many Afghans living abroad to finally return home, including the Mohseni clan, who seized an opportunity to fill a vacuum by creating a media company. Beginning with radio, then expanding into TV, the Mohsenis sought to open Afghanistan up to the world after five years of Sharia law-governed Taliban rule, as well as almost 30 years of warfare and misery that plunged the nation into global isolation.
Originating as a small venture, TOLO quickly blossomed into a full-blown operation, staffed by locals who were, and continue to be, managed and trained by foreigners brought in by the Mohsenis to run the station. Thus, what emerges is a microcosmic depiction of international intervention aimed at fostering cultural revolution, as TOLO’s mixture of news, talk shows, and scripted dramas are designed both to entertain the masses and teach them about basic health, business, and education issues (the latter via an Afghani iteration of Sesame Street). That goal is taken a step further by shows like Eagle 4, a glorifying drama about Special Forces heroes, which is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, and openly strives to provide positive images that will generate greater countrywide support for homegrown law enforcement.
The Network doesn’t shy away from the fact that such efforts make TOLO a propagandistic tool; rather, the film argues—via comments from many producers and production heads at the station—that such propaganda is a necessary means of fostering the type of transformative change needed in Afghanistan. With the aid of outside benefactors or on their own, TOLO’s shows actively promote values they see as vital to rebuilding Afghanistan, so that an on-the-road show hosted by cheery Mujeeb Arez isn’t just a fun travelogue program, but also a vehicle for uniting the country through vignettes of daily life that reveal the similarities of its disparate people.
As a makeup artist claims she learned her craft by watching YouTube videos, women assume positions of power at the station even when they have little at home, and foreign producers and their Afghan apprentices express fear for the future once Western coalition forces finally depart, The Network makes a stirring case for the cultural benefits of foreign intervention when it’s desired and embraced by locals. While the film seems to mirror Afghan youths’ more hopeful outlook for West-East cooperation as a way to move the country into the 21st century, that optimism is mitigated by the harsh reality that, with suicide bombings and sexism still rampant, Afghanistan remains on the precipice of chaos. As evidenced by two TV producers not returning home after a trip to America, any improvements to Afghanistan life remain modest and tenuous at best—an unavoidable truth that ultimately casts The Network not as pro-West publicity so much as a sobering snapshot of a country struggling against tremendous odds to find its own modern path.