An almost haunting film by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Bookended by shots of a total eclipse surrounded by darkness, Kandahar (2001, original title: Safar e Ghandehar) is a journey into Afghanistan. Filmed prior to the events of September 2001, it got life in distribution as a result (though it's sad that a fine foreign film like this has to be "topical" to get even moderate release in the United States).
The film took part in fourteen film festivals in 2001. It won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Palme d'Or. It also won the FIPRESCI Award at the Thessaloniki Film Festival for "a visionary, poetic, yet unsparing revelation of human suffering in conflict-torn Afghanistan." In addition, it also won the Federico Fellini Honor from UNESCO, Best Humanitarian Film from the World Council of Churches, the Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review, the Grand Prize from the Society of Churches of the World (at Cannes), the Public Prize at the Festival des Cinemas du Sud, and Best Actress at the Montreal Neuveau Cinema Nouveaux Media Film Festival (all awards from 2001).
Fictional yet more immediate and more honest than anything a CNN newscrew could ever put together. And simple. The journey is less about a destination (at least a physical one) than the journey, itself. It takes one through the deserts and rocky soil, through the villages, past the people. It unfolds, rather than progresses along some expected plot curve. Crude, at times, and hardly looking slick and "professional" like Hollywood product, it still has images and momentsoften quietthat linger the way a cinematic experience is supposed to.
It is largely based on the life of the leading lady (Nelofer Pazira), who essentially plays herselfa Canadian journalist whose family fled Afghanistan when she was a teen. She left behind a good friend, from whom she received a letter years later saying that she felt life was not worth living. Pazira made several attempts to enter Afghanistan to find and save her friend was unable to (in 1999 she heard that her friend was still alive, unfortunately the rest has been silence).
The journalist in the movie is searching for her sister. When her family fled, the sister was left behind. A letter revealed that the sister, who had lost both legs from a land mine, is planning to commit suicide during the final eclipse of the twentieth centuryfitting, as the life-giving sun both bakes and dries the land, and obscured by the moon (hidden like the women of the film) there is only darkness.
After trying for almost a month, Nafas (the character) has found a possible way in through Iranbut it only leaves her three days to reach Kandahar where her sister is (I am unaware where the refugee camp they start at is supposed to be, but from the nearest point along the border, it is around 350 km/217.5 miles.)
Throughout there are images that are almost surreal or absurd and ones that are almost heartbreaking. Sometimes both. One of the most talked about images is that of the leg prostheses being dropped by parachute. This happens twice. The first time, it seems merely absurd, the second, much more (I'll get back to that). At the camp the camera works its way down lines of dozens and dozens of young girls (preteens) as they are told that it is the last day of school, since they will be returning to Afghanistan where they will not be allowed to learn. They are also trained to not pick up child's dolls because they are booby-trapped with land mines. A woman tosses the dolls on the ground and the girls must practice walking around them, all tentative, arching bare feet on the hard-packed ground. Pictures are taken, presumably for identification purposes, and each person is given a twenty dollar bill.
There is a reality here that transcends even what would be in a documentary (which it partly plays as). The actors are nonprofessionals from the region (they filmed near the Iran-Afghanistan border)Pazira helped serve as an interpreter for the production. These aren't actors, they are real people, and more than that, they are really living under many of the conditions portrayed in the film. Later on, when you see the men with limbs missing from land mines, they really don't have those parts of their legs. This isn't a sanitized Hollywood product with make up and digitally removed tissue. It's ugly and real. And when one sees it, there is no question whether it is make up or a special effect, you just know
Not just playing like a documentary, it also plays like news footage (if news footage bothered with seeking some sort of truth that doesn't rely on soundbites and short attention spans). Much of the camerawork is handheldand, again, unlike the features one is used to seeing, this is not steadicam, this is handheld camera. If it took place in postwar Italy, this would be called neorealism.
Nafas travels incognito as a "fourth wife" with a family returning to Afghanistan. Along the way she is lectured on keeping the burqa on at all times, because it is a matter of the man's "honor" (he is "devout") and it doesn't matter to the "scandalmongers" that she isn't his wife. At the same stop, she sees the girls and other wives almost ecstatically picking up colorful bracelets and having their nails polished (later, a wife puts on lipstick under her burqa) from a trader. It is sadly ironic that the only reason they have the freedom to do such decadent things is that these adornments will be hidden from the world like they are. It is further irony that the burqas are the most colorful images in an entire movie of bleak, seemingly endless landscapes.
She loses her guides when they are robbed at knifepoint by bandits inside the border who take their things and the odd three-wheeled truck they have as transportation. The family turns back, suggesting she do likewise. (The thieves were very likely members of clans that were part of the United Frontalso known as the Northern Allianceis probably lost on many in the audience.) She next meets up with a young boy who has been expelled from school for not being able to properly recite the Qur'anlessons that also include intermissionary recitations on the use and purpose of a saber and a Kalashnikov.
He agrees to lead her (for fifty dollars), along the way taking a ring off a skeleton, which he tries to sell herlike the large circles of watchers around the cockfights, even children have been numbed to death when existence depends on satisfying the simplest necessities like food, water, and shelter. Or something to forget about those pressing needs. Seeing the fights triggers a memory by Nafasover half of the speaking is in English, much of it being narration into her tape recorder as a diary of the journeyit was a distraction at one that allowed her sister to wander of and innocently pick up one of those "dolls."
We see how doctors diagnose and treat womenfrom the other side of a sheet with a small hole in it (so he can see the mouth or ear or eye, but not all at once) using a child as an intermediary for issuing instructions or asking questions (no direct conversation). Nafas becomes sick (probably from drinking well water) and has to visit the doctor. He is an American ("black American") who had come over to "find God" during the Soviet invasion.
After that he found himself fighting on both sides, the Pashtuns and the Tajiks, each of whom were certain God was on their side. He tells her that one day he found two children in the middle of the road, one Pashtun and one Tajik, both about to die if untreated. That day he realized the search for God would be in trying to help the victims.
He cannot grow a beard and has to glue his on each day. He has no medical training but, as he says, these people don't need expertise because they suffer and die from "simple" things like famine and diarrhea and "worms" they pick up from the water. This is, as he points out, a country where the handgun he carries is the most "modern" thing. He makes her leave the boy (who incessantly pesters her to buy the ring, finally just giving it to her before walking off) and takes her as far as the International Committee of the Red Cross camp for people who have lost legs due to land mines. He'd take her farther but he says he had been in Kandahar prison and can't go there.
The film gained a bit of notoriety because the actor who plays the doctor, Hassan Tantai, is suspected to be David Belfield, who is under indictment in the US for the murder of an Iranian diplomat in 1980. In press statements, the director and distributor assert no knowledge of whether he is the fugitive or not. According to the director, he chooses his actors "from crowded streets and barren deserts. I never ask those who act in my films what they have done before, nor do I follow what they do after I finish shooting my film. 'Kandahar' is no exception."
At the camp, the futility and frustration of trying to help those maimed by land mines comes to the fore. It also shows the humanity of the victims. One man, who is missing most of a forearm, tries to trade for a better set of artificial legs which he later tries to sell. One man tries to get another set for his wife because the ones she has been issued (something that can take up to a year) are way too big. He pulls out a carefully folded burqa to check the height and tries his wife's shoes on the fake feet. Almost as if he is to begin dancing. Maybe he hopes to someday. We know he won't get that set, it's promised to another woman.
Some of the scenes where people argue about such things seem to go on a bit long, even though the dialogue is stripped to necessity, the only ornamentation found is in the tape diary and some moments when the doctor tries to say some kind words about "hope" for her sister. It seems a bit too clear that English isn't the first language of the writer, as some of those passages are a bit awkward (this wasn't helped by the sub-par soundtrack and a copy of the film with more snaps, crackles, and pops than some of the thirty year old prints we watched in film class). Characters are only as developed as is absolutely necessary. On the other hand, this is a movie about images. Images and ideas to reflect on. And in that sense, it succeeds magnificently. They remain on the brain long after it ends.
There is the second "drop" of the legs. In rushing slow motion, dozens of one-legged men "run" as fast as their crutches allow across the desert to reach the promise of being able to walk with some facility and sense of dignity. The scene is almost beautiful when divorced of its contexta sort of sad, cruel beauty. Something the film is suffused with throughout. And like so much else, the artificial limbs are a Band-Aid, a finger in the dike. Only so much aid can get through and it cannot address the deeper problem. It can't unoppress women and lift the veil. It can't make it rain. It can't teach the children not to live by the gun and the saber.
The one-armed man becomes her new guide. Dressing in his own burqa (and still carrying the legs), they join a large party of women on their way to Kandahar for a wedding. Part way there, the group splits uptraveling with the group being a pretense for some of the women so they could escape to Iran. There is more near-surreal imagery as the group of women, mostly silently (there is some singing early on) and multicolored in their bright buqas, move across the rock and sand on their way to what is supposed to be a joyous occasion. They don't speak, they whisper. It's like they are performing according to instinct, rather than choice. Resignation and custom. But then, there is little choice allowed in their situation.
The wedding party is stopped by Taleban. They are searched (women performing the search) and separated, some because of forbidden items, like a book and a musical instrument, others for no apparent reason. Nafas is told by her guide to get rid of the tape recorder. She doesn't, though her earrings may have been what initially gets her pulled out of line. As it winds to the end, we realize that she isn't going to save her sister and has become imprisoned in the same situation she hoped to save her sister from.
The last shot is the lingering sunset through the latticed burqa, going out of focus as it glows through one of the holes. Then the darkness of the eclipse brings us to the credits. And the end.
(Sources: the film, which I saw today; I also looked at several reviews to help recall certain detailscouldn't take notes in the theater; also helpful were the www.imdb.com and the official site for the movie www.kandaharthemovie.com where I got information on Paizira and the quote from the director)