REVIEW: Return to Kandahar

The most exhilarating Iran film I have ever seen was A Moment of Innocence during a screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1997. It was a packed house with over 1,000 spectators and the audience was, it can be safely said, swept away. We laughed and gasped at all the right places, and its closing shot (which remains the greatest I have ever seen) drew spontaneous applause.

The film is based on the director’s own experience. Twenty years ago, he had been a leftist-Islamic radical sent to jail for stabbing a policeman of the Shah’s regime. When he got out of prison, he became disillusioned with traditional politics and started making films. He came across the idea of recreating, for a feature film, the stabbing incident from his youth. He sought contact with the policeman and persuaded him to help in the making of this film. Together they held auditions (to find the actors who can play their younger selves) and rehearsals and went through the process of the shoot.

A Moment of Innocence is brilliant because it self-reflexively works on both the level of documentary and fiction while cannily exploiting the conventions of both. If this sounds like hard work, viewing the film is anything but: It’s frequently hilarious and filled with joyous light. It’s a political film, even a “message” one, which works as a superbly suspenseful narrative.

The director’s name: Mohsen Makhmalbaf. After such a great introduction, I made sure to keep checking out his works. In recent years, he has helped his daughter Samira and his wife Marzyieh to come out with their own award-winning films. Mohsen quipped at the time: “I have stopped making films and am now making film­ makers.” He didn’t really quit, of course: Kandahar was unveiled last year and has become his first film to be distributed in Malaysia.

It should be stressed that the film was completed months before the events of 11 September. This is because viewers might unfairly expect it to tell “the real story” about life with the Taliban. The film is a poet’s rather than a realist’s depiction of how a certain type of people can or cannot survive under a certain type of tyranny.

Nafas (Nelofer Pazira) is an Afghan-born journalist now residing in Canada. She receives a letter from her sister, who had been maimed by a landmine and now intends to commit suicide during the last eclipse of the 20th century. Nafas decides to undertake the perilous journey back to Afghanistan, a country where it is illegal for a woman to travel alone.

The film functions best as a series of tableaux, some of which are almost surreal. The sequence of maimed men hobbling on crutches towards artificial legs that are being parachuted down by medical aid workers will surely get a permanent place in cinema iconography. Equally striking for me was the scene of Quran-reciting kids whose lessons are periodically halted while they demonstrate their knowledge of weapons – “the only modern things in this country,” as one of the characters says.

This film doesn’t achieve the awesome marriage of style and intent that I witnessed in A Moment of Innocence. It seems rushed and some sections are repetitive and didactic. Neither does it quite achieve the lyrical poignancy of his Gabbeh, a film content only with the thinnest of narrative threads but which functions like a visual poem.

As mentioned before, part of the problem might be our weight of expectation with regards to its explosive and suddenly timely subject-matter. This is of course no fault of its film-maker. It was made at a time when the international news-watching community didn’t have the same awareness of Afghanistan that it currently thinks it has.

The sequences to do with the discrimination against women (a theme through-out much of Makhmalbafs oeuvre) burn into your brain because of the director’s gift for milking the dramatic potential from the simplest metaphors: a perforated sheet separating a female patient from her doctor; a tattered book being confiscated; lipstick being applied behind gloomy shrouds.

It is unsentimental of the greed and desperation that have afflicted the menfolk in a society like that: Witness the mercenary boy Khak who functions as Nafas’ guide. But these portraits seem less than illuminative since they lack context. In fact, there are moments – lingering on the maimed stumps of landmine-ravaged bodies, for example – that feel too much like emotional blackmail and which took me out of the film.

Technically, the film can be rough. The cinematography is often ravishing but the quality of the dubbing is poor.

That, together with the non-professional cast, can give the impression that you are watching a Pasolini film, minus of course the nudity.

Makhmalbaf wrote a long essay early this year called Che Guevera in Gandhi’s Court. I recommend that you read it. It is partly a response to a bizarre controversy that erupted from his film: It seems that an actor in it, a black American converted to Islam, is wanted for a murder committed decades ago. He plays a doctor in the film and his identity was discovered only when the American authorities viewed it. Makhmalbaf wrote:

“Did you know that the actor in your film was a murderer,” [a friend] asks. “No!” I said,”and I still don’t know that.”

“If you knew,” he persists, “that he was a murderer, would you have made a film with him?”

“Even if the actor in ‘Kandahar’ is really a murderer,” I said, “I have turned an American murderer into a reformist who regrets violence. As for the question that if I had known he were a murderer would I have made a film with him or not, I have to say yes, of course–lf I knew that he were a murderer, I would have made a film with him about the murder that he had committed, in order explore why is it that in the civilized and opulent United States, a black man commits a political assassination and then escapes to a country like Iran, which has a tense relationship with the United States. It in fact has just occurred to me that if I were to see him I will make that film.”

The essay isn’t just about this controversy but goes on to address the continuing inequities of the post­ September 11 world:

“Why is it that we live in a world that those who are responsible for the illiteracy of the 95% of Afghan women and 80% of Afghan men are not taken to any court? Why is it that those who are responsible for the creation of Taliban and other fascist regimes are not tried? Why is it that those who are responsible for wars and mass murders are not tried as killers? Isn’t this really because the real murderers are those world leaders?”

We unfortunately do not get an argument this complex or confrontational in Kandahar. I am glad that this film exists but I am even more eager now to see what he will do for a follow-up.

The final shot is of a woman pulling back her burqa over her face. Through the veil we see together with her the sun going behind the moon. The shape of the eclipse is uncannily similar to the Arabic number zero. It’s a beautiful-looking symbol, and a final reminder that the film should be taken more as a poetic allegory than comprehensive expose. A fascinating but flawed film, Kandahar is a demonstration that, perhaps, poetry can only do so much.



First Published: 26.03.2002 on Kakiseni

Related items

For Translation

The 8th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…

The 7th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…