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KANDAHAR: Haunting Images, Veiled Agendas

 





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Photos courtesy of Avatar Films





By Andrew Jack


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.

There 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 uncertain fate.

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.

There 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.

Behind it 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.

Kandahar 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 U.S. justice.

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.

The 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).

So, 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.




Related: Kandahar, The Official Website


Andrew Jack is a British journalist based in Moscow and a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com.




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