Before it was violently forced into our collective consciousness
after 9/11, most Americans were blissfully unaware of the
existence of the Afghan city of Kandahar. Also for the most
part we were ignorant of this small Iranian film that won
the Ecumenical jury prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival.
Coming to us on the heels of such infamy, Kandahar proves
to be worthy beyond the merely satisfying a morbid curiosity
when it was arrived on U.S. screens.
Inspired by a real story, Kandahar depicts the journey of
Nafas, (Pazira, the real-life model for the character) an
Afghan woman living in Canada, who attempts to travel to Kandahar
to save her sister, who has threatened to commit suicide out
of despair at what has become of her country. Since women
aren't allowed to travel alone, Nafas must bribe guides to
smuggle her into the city, while trying to avoid the Taliban,
and banditswho prey on travelers. Incidentally, the film isn't
really about the Taliban, who make only a small appearance
toward the end. Rather, it's a portrait of life under the
most desperate of circumstances and what these conditions
can do to wither a people's spirit.
Instead of trying to shock us with graphic depictions of
brutality, Makhmalbaf takes a more sophisticated approach.
There are no massacres, rapes, or executions in this film,
even though we know these things happen and the reality of
them stays in the back of our minds. Kandahar shows how poverty,
the constant presence of danger (which can come in the form
of idle gossip, or even a doll), and the absence of hope has
turned the Afghans into a race of scavengers who can't afford
to trust one another. Children rob the dead, amputees try
to con exasperated Red Cross workers, women hide behind burqas
and men behind fake beards. The wretchedness of life in Afghanistan
is so startling that Makhmalbaf doesn't really need to hammer
home his point with blood and tears.
Shot like a documentary, Kandahar is squarely in the tradition
of third-world neorealist cinema. The casting of non-professionals
does lead to some clumsy scenes, but Pezira's restrained,
aloof performance matches the tone of the film perfectly.
Even though the budget is minimal and the landscape barren,
the film manages to capture images both surreal and beautiful-most
impressively a joyless but colorful wedding procession through
As much as there is to admire about Kandahar, it still seems
like a failure, for the intent of the film is not as dispiriting
as the actual effect turns out to be. We're meant to take
comfort in Nafas' perseverance, and hope that the Afghans
can match her courage and find their way out of the darkness,
but the film gives us so little cause for hope and the sense
of ruin so permeates it, that instead we find ourselves identifying
more with Nafas' struggle to come up with a persuasive argument
for why her sister should have faith in a better tomorrow.