At a time when the word Afghanistan is on everyone’s lips, Kandahar arrives as a rare gift: a penetrating, and poetic, glimpse behind the veil of Taliban oppression. Part fable, part manifesto, part dreamlike document, this film takes us to a place where the news doesn’t go. Directed by Iranian master Mohsen Makhmalbaf, it’s the story of an Afghanborn Canadian named Nafas who embarks on a journey to the city of Kandahar, and gets stuck in refugee limbo. Her goal is to find her sister, who has threatened to commit suicide during the final solar eclipse of the millennium.
The drama was inspired by Nelofer Pazira, 27, an Afghan-born journalist and student from Ottawa. In 1998, she tried to find her way home to rescue a suicidal friend in Kabul, and asked Makhmalbaf to help. But, unable to enter the war-torn country, she had to abandon her quest. Two years later, Makhmalbaf asked her to star in a film based on her experience, although she’d never acted before. They shot in Iran, dangerously close to the Afghan border. “The director came close to being kidnapped,” says Pazira. “The one thing that saved him is that he’d grown a long beard and was wearing traditional Afghan clothes.”
The film juxtaposes images of haunting beauty and absurd affliction. Trying to
reach Kandahar, Nafas infiltrates a wedding party of Afghan women who are covered head to foot in a rainbow array of burkas—a prison of colour. They trek across a naked landscape of desert dunes that suggest the contours of a woman’s body. And on this yellow brick road to nowhere, Nafas gets stranded in a hell of beggar rogues and landmine amputees.
Makhmalbaf cast most of the film with actual refugees and aid workers. They include a disillusioned black American militant who dispenses medical aid. Removing his fake beard, he tells Nafas, “This is a man’s burka, just like what you have is a woman’s beard.” Kandahars dialogue switches between English and Farsi, and the English portions often sound didactic and wooden, reflecting the actors’ inexperience. But authenticity makes up for the dramatic lapses. We see a religious school where rows of boys bob their heads over the Koran and recite praises to the Kalashnikov rifle. An extraordinary scene shows amputees begging for artificial limbs from the Red Cross. And, in the film’s most indelible image, a horde of one-legged men on crutches chases after artificial legs floating down by parachute—not so surreal in a land where the sky now rains bombs and peanut butter.
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