Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Taking on a new relevance in the light of the war in Afghanistan, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Iranian film Kandahar had already proved itself a powerful cry for help when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May. This relatively straightforward condemnation of life under the Taliban regime provides a now familiar catalogue of misery and oppression through the story of a female journalist who tries to enter the country and save a sister bent on committing suicide because of the harsh conditions in the city of Kandahar.
As a project, Kandahar was brought to director Makhmalbaf by Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan activist and journalist now living in Canada, whose own experience of trying to re-enter her homeland provides the basic story. Already interested in the plight of Afghanistan, as demonstrated in his 1988 film The Cyclist (the story of an Afghan exile living in Iran), Makhmalbaf carried out his own undercover research before writing the script. He cast Pazira as Nafas, a thinly fictionalised version of herself. The film could not be made in Afghanistan, of course, but the director found a suitable setting close to the country’s border with Iran, where thousands of Afghan refugees eke out a meagre existence.
From the start, Kandahar seems to be aimed at a Western audience, with the English-speaking Nafas recounting her every move and thought into a tape recorder and acting as our guide as she journeys into the heart of darkness. Heavily veiled and disguised as a peasant, she is led across a war-ravaged, mine-strew wasteland. Her first guide is a young boy who may be willing to betray her. Her second helper is a kindly doctor who proves to be a black American expatriate and former radical, and whose search for God has led him into the wasteland. This man in disguise arranges for Nafas to join a wedding party headed for Kandahar.
Although Nafas’ journey takes in a whole series of bizarre and disturbing incidents, the film focuses on two particular horrors. The first is the terrible plight of women, who appear to enjoy few if any of what we would claim as basic human rights. Their oppression is embodied in the burka, the dress that covers their entire bodies and whose veiled window Makhmalbaf uses to symbolise women’s imprisonment. In one early scene, dozens of little girls are being prepared for a trip across the Iranian border into Afghanistan, where they are told they will no longer be able to go to school. (On the other side of the border, incidentally, young boys attend a hellish religious/military school, where Taliban mullahs administer harsh tutelage in the Koran and the Kalashnikov.) In a later scene that’s both shocking and ludicrous, women are ‘examined’ by a male doctor through a small hole in a curtain, one body part at a time, while a male attendant translates instructions from doctor to patient.
The second horror spotlighted by Makhmalbaf is the mutilation and amputation caused by land mines. In the film’s most striking sequence, which is just as startling in its impact as anything dreamed up by the great Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel, an army of one-legged men race across the desert on crutches when a Red Cross airlift drops artificial limbs by parachute. Again like Buñuel, Makhmalbaf doesn’t make the mistake of treating the downtrodden as saints, a point demonstrated in the black comedy of people using the artificial limbs as a means of cheating or barter. Overall, this vivid, heartbreaking film works both as a raw, documentary-style report from the front and as a visually rich portrait of a hellish world trapped in a time warp.
Iran-France, 2001. English subtitles. Colour. 85 mins.

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