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'Kandahar' almost-real look at world the West little noticed

Friday, January 04, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Mohsen Makhmalbaf's movie "Kandahar" made its international debut at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, winning the Ecumenical Jury Prize. It was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival three days before Sept. 11.


RATING: Unrated; contains mature themes and scenes of limbless men.

STARRING: Nelofer Pazira, Hassan Tantai.

DIRECTOR: Mohsen Makhmalbaf.


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'Kandahar' actor a fugitive?


The film has won plaudits from several major critics. It is also the subject of a controversy about whether one of the players in the film is a fugitive under indictment for two decades for the murder of a former Iranian diplomat.

Like the city for which it is named, one can reasonably ask whether "Kandahar" would have received so much attention if not for the focus on Afghanistan that followed the terrorist attacks on America. Others have already wondered whether we will continue to pay attention to the country's problems once our business there is done.

We've read about the Taliban reign of terror, the dehumanization of women, the drought and hunger pervading the country. "Kandahar" lets us see all of that and more -- not for real, but in a re-enactment that is all the more convincing for its semidocumentary tone and its use of non-actors, most of them indigenous to the region. In this case, pictures are indeed worth a thousand words.

Nelofer Pazira, who takes the featured role, is not an actress, either. Born in Afghanistan, she fled the war-torn country as a teen-ager in 1989. Her family settled in Canada, and Pazira became a journalist. A friend who stayed behind kept in contact, and after the Taliban seized power the woman hinted she might commit suicide. Pazira tried but failed to get into Afghanistan and help her friend, meeting Makhmalbaf, an Iranian, in the process.

Makhmalbaf adapted Pazira's story, changing the friend to a sister and convincing Pazira to play the lead part, a woman named Nafas. The movie was filmed in a refugee village on Iran's border with Afghanistan.

Even before she enters Afghanistan, Nafas must don the burqa in order to pose as the wife of a man who has agreed for a price to say she is one of his wives. But she also watches children being warned not to pick up dolls and other toys they might see on the ground -- they might be covering mines.

One segment of the film contains a shocking number of people who are missing an arm or a leg. Nafas enters a Red Cross camp that hands out cumbersome artificial limbs. People must wait as much as a year to get them. One man tries to con the nurses into giving him a set. Others hear helicopters approaching and run along on their crutches as the artificial limbs drop from the sky on parachutes.

It is the most surreal moment in the movie. Yet when Nafas talks to the nurses, it is clear from the way they talk that they are not acting and we lose the sense that this is fiction. But then it isn't, really. At other times, especially at the beginning, the movie suffers from telling, not showing -- Nafas speaks into a tape recorder and recites what might be a lecture about the state of the country.

We don't see much of the Taliban, or of anyone else except for maimed people, refugees, desert sands, a boy who takes rings from corpses so he can sell them and a doctor trying to treat a woman without looking at her or talking directly to her -- they are separated by a curtain with an eyehole, and a child acts as an intermediary.

The point is that the problems of Afghanistan -- the mines, the hunger -- won't go away just because the Taliban have.

But we also see women wearing jewelry and painting their nails under the burqa. The movie ends with a point-of-view shot of what it looks like to have a burqa come down over your head, shutting out the light and the air. Nafas, on the other hand, is a word that means "to breathe." Now, at least, she and her countrywomen can.

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