Film Review: The Network

Documentary about Afghanistan’s first TV network is slick yet pedantic.

The Network is really two films in one—and neither is quite satisfying. What begins as the story of Tolo TV, the first TV network in Afghanistan, and those who run it, turns into an essay film about the country’s women and how they are coping with the changes there over the last several years. Filmmaker Eva Orner covers many details yet also leaves important gaps, undercutting her well-meaning effort. Most likely, audience interest will be limited

Tolo TV was launched in Kabul in 2004 by Saad Mohseni (dubbed “the Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan”) following years of a media blackout by the Taliban. During the occupation by NATO forces, Mohseni, along with his siblings, grew the network (originally radio, later television) into the largest in the country. Orner interviews him and some of the people who work on the various programs, including producers, production managers, directors, and members of the crews. Along the way, we learn about the challenges faced by the Afghanis who are unaccustomed to Western production methods. As the foreign troops leave the country, the crews face increasing dangers in the streets. The last half of the film devotes itself primarily to the concerns of the women who work at the network and also those who live in the society at large.

One wants to like The Network. Here is the story of a group of courageous, charismatic people trying to entertain and educate a country starved for the kind of programming and information most in the West take for granted. Orner skillfully films her “inside” look at Tolo TV, so much so that The Network seems like an in-house promotional film. With its glossy cinematography, crisp editing, and upbeat musical score (during the first 45 minutes), you would think there wasn’t a single critical thing to know about this organization.

Though there are plenty of moments with the key talking heads of Tolo TV, Orner leaves out of her journalistic inquiry any kind of impressions by the Afghani viewers (not a single interview). And few of the 800 employees are represented in the picture, including the actors in the productions.

The Network does improve in its second half, at the point it is no longer focusing as much on the TV station. Here, Orner finds more genuine human interest in her look at the women who work at Tolo TV and those in Kabul and beyond trying to change the viciously misogynist culture by organizing rallies and taking over positions traditionally filled by men. While the male talking heads still predominate, here Orner provides a look at the country that feels more complex than in the first half of the film. Overall, The Network is uneven and unfocused, but not without merit.