Photos courtesy of Avatar Films
MOSCOW, 29 January 2002 -
There are things you can forgive in an amateurish documentary made
by a novice, but which are less acceptable coming from an experienced
professional director shooting something that mixes elements of fact
with a heavy dose of fiction.
Kandahar is an
art-house film all but ignored by critics for most of last year, and
suddenly propelled to widespread general release as a result of the
events of September 11, before which few would even have been able to
place the Afghan city on a map.
Some of its images are
extremely evocative, as well as highly informative. For anyone
(including this author) who has spent time in Afghanistan over the
past few months, they carry an additional power and veracity.
is the religious school, where tiny boys sit swaying and chanting the
Koran, as well as the importance of the multiple bloody uses of the
Kalashnikov. Those evicted for bad scholarship face a still more
There is the pride of an old man with three
wives defending his own honour as much as anything else as he
justifies the obligatory use of the uncomfortable nylon burqah or
female full body covering, complete with its tightly-woven grill
across the face.
There are the practical difficulties of a
medical consultation in a surgery under the Taliban, with an ill woman
sitting on the far side of a suspended drape, communicating via an
intermediary and with just a tiny hole through which the doctor can
examine the affected part of his de-gendered, de-humanised patient.
is the ubiquitous threat of petty and serious crime alike, the
charlatans, the desperate search for money, the legacy and continuing
threat of war and violence, and the perpetual harassment of
officialdom. Not to mention the dirt, the malnutrition, poor hygiene,
and almost absent medical aid, constantly threatening alongside
everything else to make simple sicknesses fatal.
all, the film highlights what the veteran journalist James Cameron
once called the strange beauty of poverty, with the harsh desert and
mountain landscapes and a wonderful resilient people. Such images help
explain why, despite all the hardships, many journalists and
non-governmental workers have extended their stays, or been lured
back, to Afghanistan.
You observe women beautifying
themselves discreetly, and the surprising, but apparently relatively
widespread, habit of concealing objects—and even the male gender—under
the cover of the burqah.
In the strongest visual scene, like
an animated Magritte painting, Afghans with legs and arms blown off by
landmines sprint in awkward competition on crutches through the desert
to seize a modest consignment of artificial limbs, each dropped by
individual parachute from an aid plane flying overhead.
does much to get beneath the surface of the torment of the Afghans—in
exile as well as within the country—and to portray the
contradictions of a people long misunderstood or simply ignored by the
rest of the world. Yet there are also considerable disappointments in
the film, the latest by the veteran Iranian director Mohsen
Makhmalbaf, and starring real-life Afghan exile and documentary-maker
Niloufar Pazira, alongside local Afghans.
The film would be
very powerful indeed if it were the tale it purports to be—that
of a young Afghan woman exiled in Canada, who attempts to return to
her native Kandahar to find and save her sister, who is threatening to
commit suicide during the last solar eclipse of the twentieth century.
And for those who go to see it without the benefit of reading the
background in advance, the film indeed gives the initial impression of
being a documentary, complete with a young female Dari-speaking
narrator and her hidden camera.
But as the story progresses,
numerous shots and interviews that clearly could not have been made
without the cooperation of their subjects—and some acting as
wooden as the crutches in the film's best scene—make it clear
that all is not what it seems. In fact, Makhmalbaf decided to make a
fictionalised version of Pazira's true-life story, and shot it on the
Iranian border, largely using Afghan refugees with no acting
background. Their very experience of shooting in a refugee camp, where
the different groups fought each other, tradition made it awkward to
film the women, poverty and disease dominated, and they had to arrange
screenings to show what cameras actually do, might well have turned
out to be a better subject.
While nothing can excuse the
barbarity of the Taliban regime, the film also ends up being—unintentionallly
or not—something of an apologia for their long-standing enemy,
the Iranians, who, along with the Russians, secretly financed the
opposition Northern Alliance. The old man who pretends Pazira is his
fourth wife in order to take her across the border bemoans that crime
begins as soon as you pass into Afghanistan. And the African-American
who pops up unexpectedly (if not surprisingly) in the role of a doctor
turns out to be in real life the alleged assassin of an opponent of
the Khomeini regime, long shielded by Tehran and on the run today from
It should not be forgotten that while Iran is
now under a more liberal presidency, women in the country are still
veiled, albeit less comprehensively than across the border. It was
also not so long ago that the Iranian religious police were demonised—long
before anyone had even heard of the Taliban ministry of Vice and
Virtue. And while the assassinated leader of the Iranian-backed
Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was undoubtedly far more
liberal than his opponents to the south, social pressures if not
beatings mean that most Afghan women remain today under the veil.
film's ending is the other major problem. In fact, it ends without an
ending as such—a sunset glimpsed through a burkah as time grows
short evokes despair, perhaps, but ultimately, the film just feels
frustratingly incomplete. For what it's worth, it seems the suicidal
sister is in reality still alive; and, of course, events have now
overtaken the story (though how much conditions in post-Taliban
Afghanistan will improve is the new open question).
between the blend of documentary style and fictionalized substance,
the less-than-transparent politics, and the frustrating non-ending,
Kandahar, however informative or striking it may be, ends up
leaving the impression that Makhmalbaf might have done better making a
documentary—or handing his resources to Pazira, to let her
practise her own profession.
Two and a half stars.
The Official Website
Jack is a British journalist based in Moscow and a member of the
editorial board of Culturekiosque.com.