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TV Review: Cable's 'Frontline Diaries' takes look at Afghanistan

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

As video diary-style documentaries go, the premiere installment of National Geographic Channel's "Frontline Diaries" would have been easy to ignore -- until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. In their wake and with mounting evidence that American leaders say fingers Osama bin Laden, "Into the Forbidden Zone" will be of much greater interest to anyone trying to understand what's going on in Afghanistan.

National Geographic Channel is available on digital cable on AT&T Broadband and Adelphia cable systems. The network had planned to telecast this program next month but moved up the date because of national interest in the subject.

"Into the Forbidden Zone" follows author Sebastian Junger ("The Perfect Storm") and photographer Reza into Afghanistan, where they meet with Taliban resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated in an attack possibly sponsored by bin Laden the same week as the attack on America.

"Frontline Diaries: Into the Forbidden Zone"

When: 9 tonight on National Geographic Channel.

Narrated by: Joe Morton.


Viewers follow Junger and Reza on the dangerous trip into northern Afghanistan, where resistance leaders have a stronghold. There they see the poverty and disease rampant in refugee camps where thousands of Afghani citizens now live after fleeing persecution by the Taliban.

"In order to end the misery and suffering of the people, to end their pain and agony, there's no other choice but resistance," Massoud says through an interpreter.

The program paints Massoud as a saint among resistance leaders, a keen military strategist seeking to free his country from a fundamentalist repressive regime. In the territory his forces control, citizens appear healthy, women are allowed to work (something forbidden by the Taliban), and even Taliban prisoners appear well cared for. When Junger and Reza tell Massoud of sick twins in the refugee camp, he's true to his word to send a doctor to care for them.

Junger and Reza visit the frontlines of the battle, slipping behind craggy rocks to protect themselves from shells and bullets that bore toward them from Taliban weapons.

"It's very unprofessional to get killed," Junger says in an attempt at levity that falls flat.

Enlightening as it is, one can't help but feel a sense of lost opportunity in light of Massoud's death. He was a figure for some Afghani citizens to rally around and could have been a welcome ally as the United States sets its sights on bin Laden.

From a critical standpoint, this installment of "Frontline Diaries" isn't the end-all, be-all of documentary programs. Perhaps it's the video diary format, which makes it occasionally feel like a "reality" show following a celebrity author.

Regardless of stylistic concerns, "Into the Forbidden Zone" is eminently informative, giving faces to the people of Afghanistan and the landscape in which American troops may soon be fighting.

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