From Afghanistan With Love

As a result of the war, Kandahar, an Iranian film that with great humanity and art chronicles the brutish conditions of Afghan life, will to reach a far wider audience than director Mohsen Makhmalbaf could have ever imagined back in 1999 when he was making a highly improbable film based on a real story.

At a time when the West all but ignored Afghanistan, the Iranians were paying attention. Makhmalbaf, who achieved international acclaim as the director of Gebbeh (1996) and screenwriter of The Day I Became a Woman (2000) also made a film called The Cyclist, which dealt with the lives of Afghan refugees living along the Iranian border. That film brought him to the attention of Canadian broadcast journalist Nelofer Pazira, whose family had emigrated from Afghanistan in 1989, when she was 16. Pazira had left her best friend behind, but the two women stayed in touch over the years. After the Taliban imposed their restrictions on women, her friend’s letters took on a despairing tone; finally she wrote to say that she was considering suicide.

Driven–by survivor’s guilt?–Pazira set out to save her friend. She went to Iran, but failed to cross the border into her old homeland. In desperation, Pazira then approached Makhmalbaf for help; the filmmaker had nothing to offer and Pazira returned to Canada. But his encounter with Pazira stuck in Makhmalbaf’s mind, and he began adapting her story into a screenplay. He changed the best friend into a sister and Pazira into a woman he called Nafas, who successfully crosses the border (that is, if you call putting your life into one extreme and perilous situation after another a success). All he had to do was convince Pazira to return to Iran and essentially play herself in the film, an easy sell, since she had become obsessed with publicizing the plight of Afghan women to a forgetful world. She warned Makhmalbaf that she wasn’t an actress, but in fact she’s terrific here, a noble and beautiful character who is also quite credible.

Pazira was only the first of the amateur actors Makhmalbaf engaged, as there’s not a professional in the cast. While the beauty of the images demonstrates that he knows his light settings, lenses, and painterly compositions very well, his work with these Afghan “actors” suggests that his real calling might be in diplomacy. Inhabitants of a refugee village located along a smuggling route, most had never even seen a movie. Before he could film them Makhmalbaf had to set up screenings just to show them what the game was all about. Then he had to deal with their reluctance to even speak with members of ethnic groups other than their own. Somehow he managed to coach them into revealing their feelings and, in fact, to become fine screen actors. Of course, he’s hardly the first director to work with a non-professional cast. But surely he’s the only one to accomplish this feat using people who had been warned by the Taliban that the very act of filming was un-Islamic.

In creating Kandahar, Makhmalbaf decided to compress Pazira’s story. In the film, she has only 48 hours to save her sister, who has threatened to kill herself during an impending eclipse of the sun. After Nafas crosses into Afghanistan (speaking some rather poetic notes into her very First-World-looking tape recorder as she goes), she bribes a man who is en route to Kandahar to take her along. For $200, he agrees to pretend she is his fourth wife, but only if she dons the burka and wears it properly. An improperly worn cloth would bring dishonor to him and his other wives, the man explains. Nafas agrees, and it’s a startling sight to see this strong-looking and frankly beautiful woman utterly disappear–face, body shape, and all–beneath the brightly colored cloth.

Makhmalbaf has won plenty of critical hosannas since the war brought widespread attention to his film–it was among the top moneymakers last fall in Italy and France–but he has also been the subject of sniping from critics who say that Kandahar is too beautiful for the reality it’s portraying. There’s some truth to what they are saying–the film is visually beautiful. The drive across the desert, with Nafas, her “fellow wives,” and their children stuffed into the back of a frail-looking truck, feels almost exhilarating, as if it were an opening scene from an indie road movie, and not something more akin to the river trip in Apocalypse Now. The vividly colored burkas that cover the women are an “abomination,” according to Makh-malbaf, but they’re also “photogenic,” as are the creased and bearded faces of the men. And at times his filmmaker’s eye does take precedence over his truthteller’s outrage. But if it didn’t, Kandahar would be unbearably grim.

Inevitably, Nafas’s “husband” is robbed by roadside bandits. Then her real miseries begin. For a price, a local boy offers to guide her at a forced march pace to Kandahar, and they set off across the sand dunes. But he horrifies her by pulling the ring off a woman’s corpse they find abandoned at the foot of a dune, still swaddled in her burka. The boy wants to sell the ring to Nafas at a bargain price because “it matches your eyes,” as he tells her. Feral youth no longer seem exotic in film, but this child is unusually chilling, partly because he seems a decent kid. He’s not soul-dead yet like the Colombian sicarios of Our Lady of the Assassins. But when an amateur “doctor” warns Nafas to ditch the kid because he would sell her out without a second thought, you pull for the doctor, not the kid. The boy may beam a kind of bright-eyed innocence, but as a companion, he’s as dangerous as a desert leopard.

The doctor is perhaps the film’s most memorable character, for reasons that go far beyond his screen performance. Hassan Tantai, the non-professional actor who plays the doctor, is an ambiguous figure. He’s an African American who converted to Islam and moved to Iran in the early 1980s and edits the English-language newspaper. Maryland law enforcement officials have identified him as David Belfield, also known as Daoud Salahuddin, wanted for the 1980 killing of an Iranian official outside his Bethesda home. (Belfield/Salahuddin confessed to the killing in a 1996 interview with ABC’s “20/20.”) In the film, he plays an African American convert to Islam who has lost himself in the no-man’s-land outside of Kandahar. He’s not really a doctor, but simply by being a Westerner he possesses medical knowledge far beyond the reach of the average Afghani, as he explains to Nafas when she comes in for treatment of a bad stomach. The doctor is as much a moral touchstone for the film as is Nafas–maybe more. She has a reason for being in the desert–to save her sister. He, on the other hand, is out in the desert simply because God seems to have placed him there. He’s also enormously touching and vulnerable. When he learns that Nafas speaks English, he asks her to lift her burka and show him her face. When she re-emerges, the sight of her beauty is a jolt to the viewer. Then the doctor says he will unveil, too–which is confusing until he removes the false but convincing beard he wears to avoid troubles with the Taliban, since nature did not provide him with a proper “Islamic” beard.

After hearing her story, the doctor offers to help, and they set off in his horse and buggy (the image of them in the buggy reinforces the feeling that you’re watching an apocalyptic, but oddly costumed western), and takes her as far as a Red Cross camp where beleaguered foreign doctors, all women, are attempting to supply and fit crippled men (the area is heavily mined, of course) with artificial legs. Throughout the film, surreal visual effects have been building, with one outdoing the other. But for visual effect, the Red Cross camp takes the prize. It’s probably the sequence that earned Makhmalbaf the most criticism, as he makes poetry out of the sight of dozens of men hobbling about on crutches and artificial legs. When a plane passes overhead and makes a humanitarian food drop–or are those parachuting objects actually artificial legs?–the men hobble at top speed across the desert, to stunning visual effect.

But if Makhmalbaf has made the men’s suffering both grotesque and aesthetically pleasing, he has first made them deeply human. When the doctors poke at the men’s stumps, and ask them how they’re doing, the men’s simple descriptions of their sufferings are quite moving. They say “I’m in agony all the time” and “I haven’t slept in four months,” without any attempt at terse “manly” suffering. And of course, the actors really are maimed. When a man says his stump is sensitive to the doctor’s touch, he isn’t acting at all.

Most memorable is the man who is offended by the size of the artificial legs he’s come in to pick up for his wife. He complains that the legs are too big. “These are for a man,” he tells the exasperated doctor, who replies that his wife needs legs to walk on, not to make a fashion statement. He then finds a smaller pair of legs, slips on the pair of shoes that his wife wore at their wedding, and seems to dance with the artificial limbs. It is then that we realize the full measure of his grief for all that they both have lost.

Despite all the memorable characters, Kandahar still belongs to Nafas. Pazira says she’s not going to act any more, and that she’s going to dedicate herself to advancing the cause of Afghan women. But without lifting another finger, she–and Makhmalbaf–have already done extraordinary work. This is an unforgettable film.

David Theis is a writer in Houston. His novel, Rio Ganges, will be published this spring.

David Theis is a long-time Houston writer and a longer-time devotee of Mexican food.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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