This piece by Edward Girardet was published by The Esssential Edge 22 December, 2007.
CESSY — Christophe de Ponfilly, the 55-year-old French film-maker, writer, and Afghan aficionado died on Tuesday, 16 May, 2006 by his own hand in a forest – one of his favourite walking haunts – outside Paris. Edward Girardet remembers his friend.
For Christophe, it was a final act of romantic and melancholic desperation not only with his own life, but also the way Mankind deals, or fails to deal, with its fellow human beings…
But for me, a close friend of 25 years, Christophe’s decision – which I have to respect – at the end of a gun barrel represented the tragic conclusion to the remarkable life of a highly talented and passionate fellow journeyman. He was a man who constantly questioned the world but always saw a new challenge just over the next mountain pass. And yet, sadly for all who loved and admired him, he remained in torment, eventually concluding that he no longer had a place in the very world he was seeking to explore – and confront.
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As a Paris-based foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, I first met Christophe in the early summer of 1981 in the Pakistani Northwest Frontier city of Peshawar. I had been planning a clandestine – and exclusive – reporting trip into northern Afghanistan with one of the resistance groups, Jamiat-e-Islami, who would be accompanying a relief team from the French voluntary aid organization Aide Medicale Internationale which was operating a health clinic in the Panjshair Valley. The objective was to meet a certain Ahmed Shah Massoud, an up and coming guerrilla commander, who was supposedly giving the Soviets a very hard time.
I was somewhat disappointed therefore when a Jamiat representative stopped by Dean’s Hotel where I was staying to ask whether I minded sharing the trip with two French journalists. They were preparing a documentary film for a French television network, he explained, and it would be better to combine our efforts. I reluctantly agreed. Of course, the two cineastes, Christophe de Ponfilly and Jerôme Bony, were equally suspicious of me, but after meeting for tea we agreed to travel together. They seemed a good, humorous bunch and we immediately got on well. To be fair, I was also glad of the company and the two men evidently appreciated that I had already made several crossborder trips by foot into Afghanistan since the December, 1979 Soviet invasion.
Leaving Peshawar with the three AMI doctors and nurses, plus Jean-José Puig, a French computer specialist who used to fish for trout in Afghanistan before the war and was now intent on helping the resistance cause, we proceeded by road up to Chitral and then Garm-e-Shishma, a small village blessed by ancient hot springs at the base of the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains. Once serving as a transit point for Alexander the Great’s soldiers, it was now a staging base for the Afghan mujahideen. From there, Agha Gul, a mild-mannered former police officer with a drooping moustache and the look of a Sardinian bandit, took us under his protective wing to accompany us to the Panjshair. A Massoud confident, he was also in charge of a 150-horse caravan loaded with guns, food and medical supplies. Since then, Agha Gul was to remain a close friend with Christophe.
The journey was ideal for Christophe and Jerôme, who had pooled their resources to undertake this audacious film project. At the time, Christophe, a tall, thin man with short, military-style blond hair, was working as a frustrated editor with Laffont – supervising an encyclopaedia of sex no less – while Jerôme, an equally lanky individual with a thin nose and constantly bemused eyes, was a journalist with Antenne 2. Neither had much experience in film-making but had adopted the novel approach of using lightweight Super-8 cameras. Planning to transfer the film to tape for broadcast, they wanted to prove that it was possible to shoot professionally as part of a low-budget production while remaining mobile and without masses of equipment.
Over the next two weeks, swearing, arguing and laughing amongst themselves, Christophe and Jerôme filmed the arduously-moving convoy as it climbed 5,000 metre passes or manoeuvred gingerly along narrow trails across stony scree escarpments and verdant alpine pastures before descending through pine-forested ridges into the valleys below. At one point, a hapless mujahed stepped on an anti-personnel mine less than 20 metres from where we had stopped for tea. The doctors performed an on-the-spot amputation before dispatching him back to Pakistan for further treatment on a make-shift litter tied to a horse. One mountain pass beyond, Christophe and Jerôme stopped to film the doctors treating a small boy whose hand had been blown off by a mine he had picked up as a toy. The child, we later discovered, died from infection.
All this provided the team with precisely the sort of dramatic footage they needed to illustrate the devastating impact of this new Soviet war. Tens of thousands of anti-personnel ‘butterfly’ mines had been strewn by helicopter along the high mountain passes inflicting indiscriminate casualties amongst both guerrillas and fleeing civilians alike.
It also enabled them to begin telling the story – one which Christophe continued for years to come – of how a largely uneducated, but resilient peasant people were resisting one of the world’s Super Powers.
Crossing through Nuristan and Badakshan, we slept in lone huts or huddled together in our sleeping bags against the bitter cold behind stone-lined enclosures normally used by shepherds to shelter from the wind. It took me some time to get to know the two Frenchmen, but they were very much the Mutt and Jeff duo. Jerôme was the clown with his incessant supply of quips and jokes, while Christophe was the more serious, philosophical type, albeit not without a characteristic high-pitched giggling sense of humour. He also had a fascination for the martial arts, notably karate of which he was a black belt. Whenever we stopped for a break, Christophe would present us with a series of demonstrative karate thrusts and jousts before settling down, thoroughly content with himself, to eat or rest.
We quickly developed a congenial rapport of mutual mocking. Christophe was particularly intrigued by the fact that I hailed from a bizarre Swiss, American and British background, could speak French and was able to identify most of the birds and other forms of wildlife in the region. He also shook his head in dismay over my relentless note-taking and obsession for listening to the BBC, whether the news or agricultural programmes, on my short-wave radio whenever we stopped.
“What’s the point in listening to the radio when you can’t do anything about it, particularly in a place like this?” he once asked as he and Jerome lay exhausted, their backs against a rock. Both nursed their knee joints or complained about back problems from our daily regimen of twelve to fourteen hours of constant trekking.
“Well, you can always learn something,” I explained holding up the radio with a laugh. “They’re saying that the best cure for stiff knees and back problems is lots of walking.”
Nevertheless, over the years, Christophe would sometimes listen to my shortwave (which I carried on all my trips) in one of many valiant attempts to improve his English. Reluctantly, he had come to accept the need to learn the language for professional reasons, but he had the most excruciating accent and always gave it up as a hopeless cause, including several jabs at hiring a teacher. “There is no way I can ever learn this maudite language properly,” he lamented.
Wonderfully French, Christophe regularly criticized, sometimes in geste, but often deadly serious, what he called Anglo-Saxon “cultural imperialism.” British and American television networks never seemed willing to accept his “impressionistic” style of film-making, obliging him to produce “international” versions better suited to “Anglo-Saxon” tastes. Whenever we worked together, I always insisted on shooting separate interviews in English to be assured that there would be something of interest to the BBC and other networks. Too many French-language “talking heads,” I constantly had to remind him, were simply not acceptable.
Every time, however, Christophe protested vehemently, bemoaning the fact that the Americans would never take his work anyway, or wanted shortened versions with they could themselves edit, a stipulation he always refused unless he was himself involved. Sometimes, Christophe descended into a deep depression from which I had to gently lift him back up, often spending hours to persuade him that cultural versatility was absolutely necessary if he hoped to break into the English-speaking market, and that there was no pride lost if he could demonstrate such resourcefulness.
As a professional, Christophe was utterly engrossed by his passion for film and the risk he and Jerôme were taking with their Afghan production. Both then and in the years ahead, Christophe and I regularly discussed the intricacies of documentary making, but also, as he had already made thoroughly clear during my first trip with him to the Panjshair, his dream for producing feature films. And so today, in late May, 2006, I find it sadly ironic that he chose to leave us having just completed this dream of making his first full-length fiction film, about Afghanistan no less. The film – “L’Etoile du Soldat” – about a Red Army soldier both during and after the Soviet-Afghan war could have offered him so many more mountain passes to cross. Was this Christophe’s full circle, I wonder?
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Naturally, too, when you spend so much time walking, you spend a lot of time talking, or being a “walkie-talkie” as my six-year-old son likes to describe conservations on country walks. Trudging along those Afghan mountain paths in the summer of 1981, Christophe and I chatted for hours on end about the art of living in Paris, our passions for women, the challenges of writing, and the food we relished. Or the reasons why Christophe, at the start of his adult life, had briefly joined a Jesuit seminary but then left when he realised – or so he maintained – that he could not survive without women.
For Christophe was the quintessential romantic. Often, we imagined entire menus from oysters washed down by cold, dry white wine followed by canard à l’orange or boeuf Stroganoff and a wonderful red burgundy to a chunky mousse au chocolat, all to be finished off with an expresse, bien serré of course, a Davidoff Cuban cigar and a cognac. As we trudged along those dusty mountain trails, our feet aching and hot, we could literally taste those oysters and that wine slipping down our parched throats. And the fact that neither of us really smoked or for that matter drank alcohol in excess did not seem to matter. When we later returned to Paris, we made a point of meeting up for dinner at the Cloiserie de Lilas so that we could indulge in our fantasies. Somehow, however, those meals never tasted quite as good as those imaginary clandestine repasts conjured up in our minds.
For both of us, our treks throughout the 1980s in Afghanistan represented a spiritual balm, a vital drug, for contemplating one’s life without the pollution or bland disturbances of the outside world. You were cut off for weeks at a time. The fact that Afghanistan was at war did not seem to matter because everything had been reduced to base survival. Life on the outside quickly lost its importance. You were dealing with an extraordinary country of overwhelming rugged beauty and a people whose profound sense of hospitality in the form of a handshake or a cup of heavily sugared green tea made you realise that nothing else really mattered.
Where else could you find the time to think so intensely and without interruption for hours, days, on end, where the physical art of living was so rudimentary, so simple, without the intrusions of the office telephone, the broken down washing machine at home or the bills one could barely pay? We both considered it indispensable that at least once a year, one should head off into the mountains or deserts for two or three weeks with only minimum food; bread, tea and some fruit would suffice, so that one’s stomach shrunk and one could focus, once again, on what really mattered.