"Kandahar" Review

By David Ng Images Journal

Not quite a "journey into the heart of Afghanistan" (as the ads indicate), "Kandahar" is a sun-induced hallucination of what such a journey might be like. The first shots of the movie are of a solar eclipse as seen through the burka's mesh and its blinding effects seem to have irradiated the heroine into a kind of waking stupor. The heroine is an Afghan-Canadian journalist named Nafas (Nelofer Pazira) , who returns to her homeland after receiving a suicidal note from her sister who lives in the city of Kandahar. Nafas' journey is long and rambling and may have only taken place in her head. But, as the movie's director Mohsen Makhmalbaf implicitly asks in every scene, what is Afghanistan but a state of mind?

Starting her trek from the Iran-Afghanistan border, Nafas disguises herself as the fourth wife of an elderly Afghan man. Ever the journalist, she chatters incessantly into her recorder, usually in English and usually in surprisingly banal platitudes that only trivialize her plight. Makhmalbaf, who wrote the screenplay and edited the picture, has never been one to fret over dialogue and Kandahar is certainly no exception. It's power lies in its images, and as Nafas travels deeper into Afghanistan, she is photographed in a series of increasingly striking poses that transform female oppression into a highly photogenic state of grace.

As Nafas' desperation grows (she has only three days to reach Kandahar before her sister kills herself, on the day of the last solar eclipse of the century), the images grow more and more dreamlike. Entire communities materialize out of the empty desert. At one point, Nafas encounters a madrasah, a Koranic school, where boys with Kalishnakov rifles intone verses from their holy book as a bearded mullah looks on. Later, with the help of an English-speaking doctor, she wanders into a Red Cross relief center for mine victims. In the movie's most memorable sequence, the handicapped men chase after an airdrop of prosthetic limbs. Their race verges on the ludicrous but there's also a sense of futility, as if God were mocking them. Makhmalbaf photographs it like a reverie, every sense heightened, every detail magnified.

"Kandahar" was shot in secret along the Iran-Afghanistan border, often under the watchful eyes of Taliban soldiers, and the movie show signs of its stressful production. The looping is poor and the acting by non-professionals is bad enough to induce laughter during the most serious moments. Ms. Pazira, who plays Nafas, is a non-professional actress who plays a variation of herself. Her true story caught the attention of Makhmalbaf, who had been planning to make a documentary on Afghanistan. (In real life, as in the movie, Pazira never reaches her destination.) But "Kandahar," with its subjective points of view, is about as far away from a documentary you can get. It's final sequence is a Fellini-esque wedding procession which Nafas joins in a final bid to reach Kandahar. With its multi-colored burkas and loud chanting, the procession feels vaguely supernatural and it could even represent the final throes of Nafas' delirium. When the procession is halted by Taliban troops, the dream finally descends into nightmare.

As in "Baran," the native Afghans portrayed in Kandahar are more apparition than human, condemned to roam the Earth in a state of limbo and destined, it seems, to return to their homeland again and again. In short, to be an Afghan is to be an exile. It's a constant state of fleeing and returning. What remains of their home, however, is something about which we can only guess, or dream.

Originally Published December 21, 2001

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