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Kandahar   B

Avatar Films

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Writer: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Cast: Nelofer Pazira, Hassan Tantai, Sadou Teymouri.

Review by Eric Beltmann
"Be kind to parents, and the near kinsman, and to orphans, and to the needy, and to the neighbor who is of kin, and to the neighbor who is a stranger."
--The Koran
I don't know when The Sun Behind the Moon was renamed, but there's no question its new, less clunky title, Kandahar, has more topical relevance for Americans. Some filmgoers might mistake it as a picture dealing with terrorism, but since it was completed months before last September, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's latest work has nothing to do with terrorism, at least not the way Americans have experienced it. Rather, Makhmalbaf depicts a different, albeit connected, version of upheaval. As a woman travels back to her native city, she witnesses first-hand how the Taliban affected everyday life in Afghanistan before that government was toppled through U.S.-led military force.

When Makhmalbaf began production on Kandahar, such intervention seemed unthinkable. At that time, the West had expressed a general disinterest in the plight of the Afghan people. Evidence of Taliban tyranny was mounting here in the West well before last September. Consider these facts, as well as the date they were reported: In May of 2001, David McNamara of the United Nations called Afghanistan the "fastest growing displacement crisis anywhere seen so far," and explained that 52% of Afghan children were malnourished. That same month, a group called Physicians for Human Rights declared Taliban policy as "one of the most deliberate forms of discrimination against women in recent history." Few in the West paid much attention, perhaps because Afghanistan seemed a stranger, a neighbor so far away, a land so non-American.

Makhmalbaf clearly designed Kandahar for Western eyes, to expose an oppressive regime that built its power upon the despair of an entire national population. Although his attack now seems a little late, perhaps tamer and less revelatory than if September 11th had never happened, it nevertheless contains insights into life under the Taliban that most Americans haven't thought about. Unfortunately, the Western world's current intelligence of life in Afghanistan is still largely the result of self-preservation instincts, not the acknowledgment that an awful human tragedy was and still is occurring. Even if bin Laden ultimately beat him to the punch, one should admire Makhmalbaf for stressing awareness, for applying his formidable artistry to improving the world rather than simply entertaining it.

Like the recent No Man's Land, a comedy that accuses wealthy nations of abandoning their moral responsibilities in Bosnia (where Muslim women and children were massacred while United Nations troops simply watched), Kandahar chastises the West for its head-in-the-sand complacency. Its deepest understanding is that "history" has it wrong. While textbooks tell stories of kings and queens, real human history lies instead with the experiences of the majority, the common people. Yes, the Taliban is directly blamed for the anguish depicted in Kandahar, but its rule is barely referred to in the film -- the people are too busy suffering to worry about their leaders, religion, or global politics.

Such misery is what led the main character, an Afghan journalist named Nafas, to seek refuge in Canada. However, she now plans to cross the Iran-Afghanistan border in order to rescue her sister, who has threatened to kill herself. This presents several obstacles. First, the suicide is scheduled for the next solar eclipse, which will occur within several days. Second, the Taliban forbids women to travel alone, and so Nafas -- now also required to wear a burqa -- must hire a string of men to accompany her. Most agree only because they are too desperate not to accept her offer of money.

Kandahar is the destination, but Makhmalbaf is more interested in the journey, which plays as a Middle East version of Conrad -- Nafas plunges into the heart of darkness. One of the film's most effective recurring motifs is Nafas raising her burqa, as if to re-assert her identity, or at least to symbolically relieve the stifling subjugation she feels. There's also a wonderfully absurdist moment when a caravan of women, their faces covered, share a tube of lipstick. Still, to read Kandahar as a feminist tract is an error, since the film's obvious message is that the Taliban dispensed suffering among its people equally, regardless of gender, age, or status.

Shortly after Nafas penetrates Afghanistan, she watches young girls being warned not to gather stray dolls, since they might contain land mines left over from the Taliban civil war. Inside a school, she hears boys drilled on the Koran, but also weapons. Later, she drifts into a Red Cross desert compound mobbed by men with missing limbs, and we remember the girls and the dolls. We also think of Nafas' sister, who lost both legs to a mine. Eventually, Nafas befriends a doctor who admits to having no formal training: He is an American Muslim, and the basic knowledge he has of Western medicine qualifies him as an expert in Afghanistan. Besides, he says, the real problems are hunger and bad water. He is forced to diagnose ailing women through a tiny hole in a curtain, since he cannot look upon them.

All of these images are memorable, despite the film's imperfections. Although Makhmalbaf is one of Iran's most respected directors, and the founder of a well-known filmmaking school, he was forced to film Kandahar in secret amid death threats, apparently from Taliban supporters. Shot quickly in an improvised, semi-documentary style, the picture's limitations show in the seams, especially in the awkward dubbing and the monotone line readings by the non-professional actors. (An amateur named Nelofer Pazira, whose real-life story inspired this variation, portrays Nafas. Also worth mentioning is that the amputees are played by people who actually lost their limbs during the civil war.)

None of the technical flaws really register while you're watching, though, since Kandahar still chronicles a specific time and place with sensitivity and observation, gaining power as the surreal events accumulate. Without providing an answer, Makhmalbaf questions whether all or part of Nafas' trip is imagined, and as the story becomes increasingly dreamlike, so do the visuals, especially in the passages contrasting the desert's natural grandeur with appalling human desolation. There are sequences of beauty but also legitimate terror -- at one point, Nafas and her male companion, masquerading as a woman, are stopped by Taliban soldiers and asked to lift their burqas as a "security measure" -- and several flashes are worthy of David Lynch crossed with Abbas Kiarostami. When men on crutches race to claim the prosthetic legs floating down via Red Cross parachutes, Makhmalbaf achieves a brilliant, bizarre harmony of outrage, lyricism, and futility.

The Red Cross nurses do nothing to stop their clients as they scamper across the desert. Comprehending the levels of despair in these men, the nurses know where they are. Why do they stay in Afghanistan? In Kandahar, the characters are all doing something, despite impossible circumstances: The nurses provide what they can, the doctor gives bread to the sickest patients, and Nafas sneaks across the border at great personal risk. I won't reveal whether she locates her sister in time, but I will say that the point is that she's doing as much as possible. For human beings, global complacency is fundamentally unethical, a state of neglect that presumes borders and policies are more significant than human lives. This is a movie that pleads for proactive compassion, and does so with considerable poetic force.

Review published 03.31.2002.

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