In a time when most of the world wanted to be sneaking out of Afghanistan, Patrick Graham was dressed as a woman and sneaking in. He has been hosted by warlords and present in the Middle East during some of the most volatile times in its recent history. But Patrick has more recently found himself carrying over those experiences and turning them into film.
Patrick came to us from the Foundation Year Programme at King’s, which he entered in 1984 and where he lived immediately above Professor Wayne Hankey, at the time Don of Radical Bay. After taking his BA in Classics at Columbia University, New York (the once and former King’s), returned to become a MA of the Department with a thesis on Plato’s Ion in 1993. His first film, Afghan Luke, was co-written with Douglas Bell and Barrie Dunn and directed by Mike Clattenburg (some of those names may sound familiar as creators of the Trailer Park Boys). Its premiere in Halifax last October drew many members and alumni of the Department.
The film, which was released in September, draws on Patrick’s experiences reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade. It began as an idea for a television series: “2007/2008 was a real low point in Iraq, it was a really horrible time and no one wanted to invest in anything and the movies that had been about war were slaughtered,” Patrick explains. It wasn’t until 2009 that Clattenburg and Dunn approached Patrick to ask him what else he had in mind.
The film revolves around the main character, Luke (Nick Stahl), a young journalist who witnesses what he believes to be Canadian snipers mutilating Taliban corpses. When he pitches the story to his editors in Canada they refuse it and tell him not to pursue it. Luke goes back to Afghanistan with his filmmaker friend to try and get the story himself, and along the way begins to understand the adage, which is used in the film, “everything is true but the facts.”
Patrick first came to Nova Scotia because, “it was about as far away from Toronto as I Could get without going West, where I had family,” Patrick says with a laugh. Following a few years at King’s, he transferred to Columbia where he finished his degree in Classics. Following graduation, he worked for Doctors Without Borders and then returned to Dalhousie and completed his Masters under the direction of Dr. Robert Crouse. “I wrote my thesis on the shortest possible Platonic Dialogue,” Patrick recalls with a chuckle.
Patrick says that he was drawn back to the Classics Department because of the engagement it had with the texts, “King’s and the Classics Department had a real thoughtfulness and relation to the text that you felt other people wanted but had already lost...it was a time where people had generally lost any connection to the primary texts, everything had to be filtered.”
Fast-forward to the summer immediately before 9/11 and Patrick is in Afghanistan chasing down a story about Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud was the leader of the Northern Alliance, a political and military organization whom many believed to be Afghanistan’s only hope against the Taliban, “and Osama Bin Laden killed him two days before 9/11,” Patrick says, “It was part of Bin Laden’s plan to protect himself in Afghanistan, by taking out the only leader who could take out the Taliban. And that was true. Things would probably be very different in Afghanistan if he were still alive.”
Patrick describes Afghanistan in 2001 as a mess, “People were living on horse fodder which was a neurotoxin, people were becoming permanently paralyzed. It was rock bottom.” Much of the film comes from Patrick’s experiences in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 and his time in Iraq shortly after 9/11. But he is careful to point out that Afghan Luke is not a documentary, “It’s really about the relation of that western sense of journalists ‘getting the story’ and getting the facts...when you get over there, it all turns out to be an agreed upon fiction.” Patrick goes on, “it’s also about the limitations of that ‘enlightened’ western sense of journalism which seems determined to fit parts of the world we are discovering into categories.”
Within the film, the main character, Luke, says of Afghanistan that, “You are trying to make sense of a place that makes no sense.” Patrick reminds us that it's not that it doesn’t make sense, it is just radically other than the West, “We look at these places as foreign places that will one day be liberal democracies, or shades of them, and they simply do not look at themselves like that. It’s not that they don’t want education or rights for women it's just that they don’t look to the West for any of it.”
Patrick praises Classical study and the Classics Department as a way of understanding a place which seems not only a world apart from us, but also incomprehensible, “it opens you up to see that, well, if you think of theology as an expression of the human personality and its relation to the world then you are willing to see that Salafism is not simply a terrorist organization, it is a particular expression of a belief and we can understand it.” Patrick points out the argument some make about 9/11 being an irrational and incomprehensible act, “we can shake our heads in disgust at what happened or we can realize that we can understand what is going on, these worlds are comprehensible.” He also recalls the resistance he faced as a journalist, like Luke, trying to bring certain stories to the west, “When I first got to Iraq I noticed that the Sufi’s and the Salafists were fighting together against the Americans, and that was in the summer of 2003. That was really significant, but you could never explain that to someone in New York, you know, you could never get that article published because for them, the Americans had won.”
Despite the difficulties of life in the Afghanistan, Patrick found before and after 9/11 he says that the remarkable thing about the Middle East is the hospitality, “In the Middle East and a lot of the Muslim countries the tradition of hosting, as we’ve got in Homer, is extremely strong.” Patrick chalks it up to the cultures of these countries being incredibly un-bureaucratic, “These are not contractual cultures, it’s really based in friendship.”
Patrick says the movie is a lot about friendship and the tension that ambition can bring to it, “you go to these places and these people go out of their way to help you, give you extraordinary welcome because they don’t relate to each other in a way that is, especially in Afghanistan, contractual or bureaucratic.” And that, Patrick says, is ultimately what the movie is about, “That’s what happens when you go into these foreign cultures, you make friends.”
This profile was written by Colin Nicolle, a graduate of the King's School of Journalism who is now working toward a degree in Classics. We are grateful to him and to Patrick for the interview on which Colin based the profile.