Given the current socio-political situation, it would be impossible to view "Kandahar" as one would view any other film. This is not your standard cineplex fare. Clearly destined for art house viewing - the pace is slow, the narrative unfulfilled, the actors are obviously amateurs - this film is nevertheless getting a lot of attention worldwide. And although it would be callous to say that the film's producers are benefiting from'America's New War", the timeliness of this release is undeniable. For despite the barrage of email petitions that most internauts have come across in the past three years, never before in the West has there been such an interest in the plight of women beneath the burka.
The arc of Kandahar is mythic; it is a classic quest. Nafas, an Afghan-Canadian reporter arrives in Iran determined to make her way to the Taliban-controlled city of Kandahar in order to find her sister before she commits suicide on the last lunar eclipse of the 20th Century, a choice she has related to Nafas by letter. Nafas hides her money belt, her tape recorder and her identity beneath the veil of a purple burka. She encounters a series of guides who expose various facets of life in Afghanistan. She is taken in as one of many wives in a family of ten, until they are robbed and decide to turn back to Iran. Her next guide is a young boy who has just been kicked out of the Islamic study school that would have kept him fed and clothed. He steals a ring from a corpse they encounter in the sand dunes, and tries to sell it to our repulsed heroine. Nafas drinks well water and falls ill, discovering - in an incredible scene where the female patient is examined through a fist-sized hole in a curtain - that this town's doctor is actually an African American Muslim who came to Afghanistan to find God. He takes her to a Red Cross tent (similar to the one bombed by US planes a month ago) where we witness a most surreal vision. Dozens of one-legged men madly hop towards a hovering helicopter, in the hopes of nabbing one of several artificial limbs parachuting down to earth. Just outside the camp, she meets a bandit who also dons a burka that they might join a wedding party headed to Kandahar. The party meets a Taliban inspection point where their musical instruments are confiscated and Nafas' latest guide is captured. And still our heroine is undeterred in her pursuit.
While watching this film, it is hard not to wonder how on earth it was made. The'actors' are all exiled Afghans living in refugee camps in Pakistan. The dialogue is slow, even stilted at times. It feels more like a documentary then a fiction and for good reason. The principal actress, Niloufar Pazira is in fact an Afghan-Canadian journalist who met the filmmaker when she embarked on a journey to find a childhood friend who threatened to kill herself under the growing oppression of life under Taliban rule. She had suggested to filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbuf that he film her pursuit. He was unable to do so at the time but remained haunted by her quest and spent the next year researching living conditions in Afghanistan, eventually finding Pazira to propose dramatizing her tale. This is her story as it is the story belonging to every Afghan'actor' in this film. And yet, for all the emotions this film provokes, the acting is not emotional. Harrowing, horrifying details are presented in a matter-of-fact manner indicating that the constant struggle of life in Afghanistan has all but inured its victims.
We left the theatre stunned. It seemed grossly absurd to witness the ravaged territory that US Military hopes to decimate. This is a population of paupers living in clay houses and caves. It is a population of widows and orphans and disfigured landmine victims struggling to survive. As the doctor says in one scene: "These people don't need a doctor, they need a baker." Surely there cannot be a single target in this entire country worth the expense of the bombs being dropped. And yet, despite the apparent bleakness of the situation in Afghanistan as depicted in Kandahar, this is a beautiful film full of life, color and hopeful determination.
In light of the September 11th tragedy and the subsequent "War on Terrorism" (whose effects on North American citizens have only begun to be felt),'Kandahar' is a film that should be, but mostly likely will not be, seen by American audiences. The spectacular destruction of the World Trade Towers and the horrible deaths that ensued are still occupying airtime while images from Afghanistan resemble first-generation video game scenes: a single green beam falling on shadowy buildings. It is a danger to the US Administration's agenda to humanize Afghanistan and this is precisely what Kandahar does. One cannot deny that the Taliban's tyranny must end and yet it is tacitly absurd to think that dropping bombs on a destitute, mine-strewn landscape will achieve any good for the people of Afghanistan.
While President George Bush discusses with Hollywood executives how to produce film and television programming in support of the war effort, dissident voices flicker on art house screens. There is no black and white, the truth can only be found by bringing as many shades of gray to our palettes as possible. Witness a film that does not exploit the Taliban's tyranny for sake of justifying the West's Babylonian economic interests in the Middle East. Instead, Kandahar is about love, strength and the courage to survive in a world of oppressors who would much rather see you curl up and die.
For more information on this film and other films by Mohsen Makhmalbuf, visit http://www.makhmalbaf.com.
For insight into the history of the Taliban, US Foreign Policy in the Middle East and the hidden repercussions of "America's New War", visit http://www.zmag.org.