thu 06/08/2020

Girls on the Frontline, BBC Three/ News at Ten, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Girls on the Frontline, BBC Three/ News at Ten, BBC One

Girls on the Frontline, BBC Three/ News at Ten, BBC One

Women soldiers get down to it in Helmand

Girls on the Frontline: 'The filmmakers found their own phallic symbols among the guns being stripped and cleaned by female soldiers'BBC

Let’s be honest, you never expect much sense from BBC Three. You don’t count on it for, say, depth of perspective. The channel which each week spews fresh torrents of hectic DayGlo entertainment in the specific direction of a desensitised demographic tends to steer clear of the big subjects. War and such. Girls on the Frontline, therefore, did not inspire much hope. That title. On any other BBC channel, it would have been women, not girls. Still, a camera crew was allowed to follow several women on a six-month tour in Helmand province. And either the British Army press office had the channel controller’s balls in a vice, or the subject really did bring out the best in everyone.

This was a story of women working in a man’s world. Out in the Afghan undergrowth, Taliban fighters don’t shoot smaller bullets at female soldiers. So women have to strap themselves in body armour designed to be worn by bigger, stronger men. Toss in the water and ammo and the slenderer soldier is carrying almost her own body weight in 45-degree heat. No wonder they have to go further in the gym back at regimental HQ.

The camera crew bravely went out on patrol and got shot at with the rest of them

The film met two women back in England – a lieutenant from Cambridge called Fiona and a cheery bombardier from Wigan called Shaz. Before she left, Fiona composed a letter designed to comfort her mother in the event of her death. Shaz had her picture taken – the death photograph to be shown on the news in the worst-case scenario. “Smile,” said the photographer.

Shaz smiled all the time. A natural performer, she guided the crew round the fly-infested latrines, the women-only shower with a curtain “to stop people perving on us”, the tent she shares with five men. One “got a bit of a cock-stand once,” she insisted with a grin. “He denies it.” The smile slowly faded. By the end of the tour she'd split from her intended, impatiently waiting back home to tie the knot.

The film asked all the questions about sex you’d expect of a BBC Three documentary. But there were slim pickings in this sexless environment. The men mostly forget that these are women. There was no connection between the pictures of monstrous breasts adorning the walls of tents and the females walking among them. One woman soldier was even stationed in the same camp as her fiancé, but sex is strictly forbidden. “You can’t be seen to be wandering around holding hands,” she explained. “It’s not fair on the rest of the guys. It is hard because it’s not natural.” On the same tour, 10 women were found to be pregnant and sent home. At least it's a better way to go than in a box.

For most women, the closest they get to the real thing are the cartoon cocks graffitied on their beauty products by bored male colleagues. This being BBC Three, the filmmakers found their own phallic symbols among the guns being stripped and cleaned by female soldiers. One did it in a bra. “I love my gun,” said Shaz, proudly stroking a cannon whose exploding shells will kill everyone within 50 metres.

The film crew evidently had only intermittent access, but managed to stitch together a narrative which conveyed a sense of intense boredom and terrifying activity. The camera crew bravely went out on patrol and got shot at with the rest of them in what one old hand euphemistically described as “theatre”. However non-committal Shaz’s voice on the end of the phone on the weekly call, however much she sounded like a sullen teenager refusing to communicate, it didn’t matter. For Shaz’s mum Bernie it meant that they wouldn’t be needing the death photograph on the news just yet.

In that sense, she’s no different from the heir to the throne. News at Ten yesterday reported on Prince Charles’s visit to Afghanistan. Royal reporting is normally as prim and stilted as BBC Three is garish and loud. Not here. “As a parent, you worry the whole time,” grimaced the father of a son who had done a tour of duty in Helmand. “If you are out here, you are getting on with everything and it's not the same. But for everyone left behind it's ghastly.” The camera looked into those eyes and for once you caught a glimpse of an ordinary mortal.

Out in the Afghan undergrowth, Taliban fighters don’t shoot smaller bullets at female soldiers

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