Political Nightmare - "Kandahar" Review

By Jeffrey M. Anderson Combustible Celluloid

Though many members of our heroic American military would probably like to get out of Kandahar, Afghanistan, the hero of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's new film, "Kandahar," desperately wants to get in.

Her motivations are far from political. Typical of Makhmalbaf and other Iranian filmmakers, he's found a way to insert humanist values into a highly political atmosphere. Our main character, a female journalist named Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), simply wishes to get to the Taliban-controlled city of Kandahar where her sister lives to stop her from committing suicide at the next solar eclipse.

But, as a woman in Iran and Afghanistan, she's not allowed to travel alone. In addition, she must wear the traditional head-to-toe covering (the burka) even in the sweltering desert heat. She's forced to hire a series of increasingly uninspiring guides for her journey and, in the end, oppression and hatred prevail.

Before she leaves, Nafas learns about potential pitfalls such as dolls packed with explosives, which are designed to kill and maim small children. She then hires a young guide named Khak (perhaps 10 or 12 years old, played by Sadou Teymouri) who tries to sing to her and sell her a watch taken from a corpse's wrist.

But she soon falls ill from tainted well water and visits a doctor named Tabib Sahid, who must speak to her through a male translator and examine her through a small hole in a hanging cloth. We soon learn that the doctor (Hossein Tantalaye) is actually a displaced American who never even studied medicine. He explains that simply because he's visited American doctors, he knows more about medicine than anyone else around.

(As if "Kandahar" couldn't be more relevant to our troubled times, recent news reports suggests that actor Hossein Tantalaye is actually David Belfield, an American under indictment for murdering an Iranian diplomat back in 1980.)

During her travels, Nafas stumbles upon a medical camp designed to fit maimed mine victims with artificial legs. Director Makhmalbaf cast actual limbless victims to fill these roles. Apparently, these patients wait for almost a year before primitive, metal limbs arrive that may or may not even fit. One healthy man continually begs the nurses to let him have a set of legs for his mother -- legs he will no doubt sell on the black market.

The doctor takes Nafas as far as he can, until they run into a wedding party traveling into Kandahar. Nafas attempts to fit in with the party, but the end of the road is unfortunately near for her. (The character of Nafas is based on the real-life Nelofer Pazira, who sought out Makhmalbaf for help in getting back to her family before Makhmalbaf decided to tell her story on film.)

Makhmalbaf's most recent films have been colorful, beautiful poems, such as "Gabbeh" and "The Silence," but some of his lesser-known, earlier films, such as "Boycott" and "Marriage of the Blessed," prove that he's always been a radical political filmmaker with more than just pretty pictures on his mind.

Denied permission to shoot in Pakistan, the director set up shop in a small town on the Iran-Afghanistan border -- a stopover for smugglers. Makhmalbaf and his crew received constant threats. The filmmaker had to wear a disguise every day to survive.

Unfortunately, the technical difficulty of the "Kandahar" shoot makes it difficult to watch at times. The sound -- at least on the print I saw -- is particularly bad, with mismatched synchronization and awful dubbing. And though Makhmalbaf almost always uses amateur actors, the cast in this film doesn't seem up to the challenge of communicating the strain of this story. Again, I chalk this up to the fact that Makhmalbaf probably did not have the luxury of reshoots.

Likewise, a few of the most important scenes in the film come across as clumsy and unclear. Certainly the ending leaves us scratching our heads, though we can easily guess what happened.

All this aside, "Kandahar" offers filmgoers an astonishingly well-timed chance to learn the truth about the world today, avoids the blind patriotism of films like "The Majestic" and "Black Hawk Down."

Originally Published January 4, 2002

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