review by Gregory Avery, 28 December 2001

In Kandahar, the new film by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf which had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last May, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), an Afghan woman living in Canada, tries to come to the aid of her sister, who is still in Afghanistan and has threatened -- rather dramatically -- to commit suicide, there, during the last solar eclipse of the twentieth century. Nafas dons a traditional burka, the dark-olive garment covering her from head to toe with but a small amount of netting to see through, and slips into the country across its northern border with Iran, attempting to reach her sister prior to the eclipse, which, at the start of the story, is to take place in three days' time.

Nafas becomes ill along the way, and is taken to a clinician. Since contact between men and women is strictly forbidden, the male clinician (Hassan Tantaï) must relay instructions to his patient by way of a third party, such as a young boy or girl. A curtain partitions the patient from practitioner, but there is a small hole cut in the curtain, which allows the clinician to examine an eye or the mouth, using light reflected from a hand-held mirror. The clinician who treats Nafas, it turns out, is an African-American, living in the country by choice; he doesn't have professional training, and no medicines to dispense. (He treats one of his patients by giving them a fresh loaf of bread.) He also has to wear a false beard, of the proper length, because he can't grow one of his own.

He's one of several who respond to Nafas' request to help her across a desolate landscape which is stark and alien, and which reminds one how Westerners take for granted the way they can move around with relative ease. Everyone turns out to be distrustful of everyone else, and they're constantly checking their stories, lest they're stopped by either bandits or the Muhjaheddin, who roam at will. A man with several wives and many children stands and repeatedly speaks praise for Allah while he is divested of his motor vehicle, and his family of their possessions, by robbers, so as not to provoke the criminals in any way into shooting them all dead. A young boy is ejected from a seminary because he can't read well enough to recite the Koran, and the teacher is too stern to help him: the boy ends up scavenging off a corpse and selling whatever valuables he finds. A man who lost a hand because of a landmine repeatedly pesters two foreign-aid workers to give him a pair of prosthetic legs, even though he still has two perfectly good legs of his own and the aid workers are trying to help many, many others who have already lost one of theirs: the man doesn't want to go away without anything to show for his efforts; the aid workers end up giving him a pair of old, temporary prosthetic legs, just to stop his haggling. (Red Cross helicopters fly in overhead and drop pairs of artificial limbs, which float down on tiny parachutes.).

It's not entirely clear, at first, why Nafas keeps asking people for to guide her to Kandahar, where her sister resides -- surely the aid of a small compass and map would suffice -- until it dawns on you that the locals would best know which roads were heavily mined and which ones would be safe to travel on. The film's narrative is wobbly and awkward at times, even though it is based on fact: Nelofer Pazira -- who is strikingly beautiful when she reveals her face -- emigrated with her family to Canada but stayed in touch with a female friend who remained behind in Afghanistan; she would later make an attempt to rescue her friend when conditions in the country became increasingly harsh towards women, driving her friend to the brink of despair. Pazira's attempt came to the attention of Makhmalbaf, who would later make a covert trip into Afghanistan to see for himself what conditions were like. Denied permission to film in Pakistan, Makhmalbaf ended up making Kandahar, using digital equipment (which gives the film's images an astonishing amount of clarity and depth), on the Iran-Afghanistan border, recruiting most of the cast from refugees who had fled into Iran seeking asylum, and even so, the film was still made at great personal risk to the director and crew.

Makhmalbaf isn't working on the same level of artistry as the great East Indian director Satyajit Ray, whose films continue to speak to audiences nearly a half-century after they were made. But whatever flaws Kandahar may have as a narrative piece seem secondary after a while to the profound level of misery conveyed through its images, which is hard to shake. With the gruesome stories only now emerging of terror and carnage inflicted by the Taliban on the Afghan people, this may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Written and
Directed by:

Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Nelofer Pazira
Hassan Tantaï

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.






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