Screenplay : Mohsen Makhmalbaf
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Nelofer Pazira (Nafas), Hassan Tantaï (Tabib Sahid), Sadou Teymouri (Khak)
With the recent toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, it may be that the central hope of Afghan women as expressed in writer/director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar—that they be seen—may become a reality.
Especially since September 11, when Afghanistan suddenly became of central importance to the Western world, the plight of Afghan women has been made well known. Under Taliban laws, they were stripped of every conceivable human right—they were not allowed to work, they could not attend school, and whenever they were in public, they were forced to cover themselves head to toe, as if any visibility of female skin would somehow defile the public space. The burka, the enormous, heavy veils that the Afghan women had to wear, becomes a disturbing symbol of their forced invisibility—they were there, but not there.
Kandahar, one of only a handful of feature films made about Afghanistan in the last two decades, tells the slightly fictionalized account of a Canadian émigré who returns to Afghanistan, where she was born, to stop her despondent sister from committing suicide during the last eclipse of the 20th century. The woman, Nafas, is played by Nelofer Paziro, an Afghan-born journalism living in Canada who made a similar trip several years ago to save a friend. Paziro, although not a professional actress, plays the role well, although she is often hidden from our view behind the burka.
Nafas has only three days to reach her sister in the village of Kandahar, and her journey through the deserts of Afghanistan turns the film into a semi-documentary account of the primitive state of the nation under Taliban rule. Makhmalbaf's script is loose and improvisational in tone; while there is an embedded urgency in Nafas' journey to save her sister, Makhmalbaf makes it clear that he is more interested in the sights along the way than in whether or not Nafas is ultimately successful in her mission (he describes the film as being "like a travel guide").
By now, constant news coverage of Afghanistan has made us well-aware of what life is like there, but even then the images in Kandahar have a powerful resonance that teeters precariously between horror and sheer absurdity. An unforgiving teacher verbally deriding a student who does perform a chant from the Koran in perfect pitch ... a photographer taking family portraits in which the women are completely hidden from view behind their burkas ... a desperate group of rural Afghans begging a Red Cross worker for prosthetic feet and hands to replace the ones they have lost to land mines (one of the sickest/funniest lines in the movie is from a man who tells Nafas that it is always good to carry an extra set of legs).
Along the way Nafas meets up with several people, including a rambunctious young boy named Khak (Sadou Teymouri), who thinks nothing of stripping jewelry off a skeleton in the desert and trying to sell it, and Tabib Sahid (Hassan Tantaï), a black American who is working as a doctor despite having no formal medical training. Tabib Sahid originally came to Afghanistan looking for God, and as he tells Nafas, the reason he has remained there is because he's still looking.
Makhmalbaf and cinematographer Ebraham Ghafouri capture the harsh desolation of the Afghan deserts with extreme long shots that seem to pulse with the sun's heat. The film as a whole has a loose, somewhat rambling quality (Makhmalbaf used all nonprofessional actors, and many of the people involved in making the film had never even seen a movie before) that, even if it weakens the impact of the traditional narrative, is effective in replicating the disjointed nature of the world it depicts.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick