At this time of year, there are a lot of television shows vying for viewers’ attention. From the best-of-the-year lists reminding us what we may have missed, to the blockbuster dramas and reality shows, it might be hard for a documentary like Children of the Taliban (Channel 4) to get a look-in. I hope it does, because this short, beautiful and thought-provoking film really does deserve all the attention it can get.
It follows four children living in Kabul after the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan in 2021. Ehsanullah and Abdullah are eight, are best friends, and both have fathers in the Taliban, making them members of the elite. When filming begins, the two boys are residents at a madrasa, the Taliban-approved Islamic religious schools attended only by boys. Abdullah is also part of his father’s security detail and often follows him around with a machine gun that dwarfs his tiny frame. The boys play with discarded military weapons and, in a telling scene that stands for much more than it shows, they argue over whether the guns are Russian or American.
It also follows two girls, Shoukria and Arezo, who are both nine and are also best friends, but no longer at school as they are working on the streets, shining shoes, to provide for their families. They are on the other side of life in Kabul, having lost the security and freedoms they once had. Their fathers are dead, leaving only their mothers to care for the children, although as women are barred from work there are few options left to them. “Would you like to be a boy and be free?” asks the voice behind the camera. Shoukria holds her hands up and says she is happy as a girl, but Arezo answers, “So much,” before he even finishes asking the question.
All four children live in a strange in-between of childhood and adult life, sometimes giggling as they play blind man’s buff, while at other times acting as a tiny parent figure, totting up whatever small amounts of money have been earned on the street that day. Their conversations are often innocent, and often tragic. In the back of a car, Ehsanullah and Abdullah discuss the merits of becoming a suicide attacker. It is so matter-of-fact and playful that it almost passes as everyday children’s chatter, but the contrast between the delivery and the subject matter is so horrifying that memories of it keep coming back to me long after the programme has ended.
This documentary leaves no doubt that women and girls have been particularly affected by the return of the Taliban, but focusing on the boys, too, gives a fascinating and rounded sense of what life must be like under the regime. The programme does a lot with a little, and leaves small moments to speak for themselves. Abdullah and Ehsanullah sit for a full and hearty meal with the adult men, discussing adult ideas about beggars and politics. It demonstrates how power operates, and how the dynamics of hierarchy can be formed at an early age.
It is all about education, too. Ehsanullah’s father wants to put him into a private school, but even with a 50% discount on the monthly fee, it is desperately expensive. It is also many, many times more than the girls and their mothers are able to earn through their work on the streets in order to feed themselves. Both girls are aware of the importance of literacy and learning in their lives; though girls are permitted to attend school at primary age, many are unable to do so because they are trying to bring in money for the family.
At around the halfway point, a twist of fate turns this into a slightly different documentary, and unexpectedly puts the girls back into education. Shoukria is spotted by an Afghan film-maker named Ali, who has a YouTube channel and makes films about the street kids of Kabul. Shoukria becomes a local celebrity and begins to interview other children about their lives; eventually, in this new economy, she starts to make enough money to escape from the shoe-polishing trade and return to studying. There are so many delicate and moving scenes here that it seems unfair to highlight one or two, but there is a moment when Arezo begins to teach her mother how to read. Her mother demurs that she is illiterate. “I’ll make you literate,” her daughter tells her.
Give this film your time. It is about hopes and dreams, faith and power, family and love, and the absolute necessity and privilege of education. To see conflict and strife through the eyes of children offers a different perspective. It is such an enlightening one.