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Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2002

Open your eyes



Kandahar

Rating: * * * *
Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Running time: 84 minutes
Language: Farsi, English
Now showing

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have left no corner of society untouched, and cinema is no exception. The aftershocks continue, and not all of them are bad. Big, dumb, violent Hollywood films -- most notably Arnold Schwarznegger's latest, "Collateral Damage" -- have run for cover as studios "tactfully" delay their releases. Who, in these past few months, would want to see a revenge flick about a guy whose wife and kids were killed in a terrorist bombing?

News photo
An Afghan wedding party (above) and Niloufar Pazira (below) with young refugees in scenes from Mahsen Makhmalbaf's quasidocumentary "Kandahar"
News photo

By contrast, a small, smart, quasi-documentary Iranian film called "Kandahar" has managed to attract a great deal of interest. This is no surprise, given its timely subject matter: an inside look at Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Kandahar. The name is inescapable in news coverage these days, but when director Mohsen Makhmalbaf began work on this film well over a year ago, the opposite was true. Afghanistan was a tragedy the world chose to ignore, simply because it could.

Based loosely on the real-life experiences of Niloufar Pazira, an Afghan exile who tried to re-enter the country in 1998, "Kandahar" traces a jagged outline of the country's disintegration. It starts with land mines and banditry, winds its way around desperation and religious indoctrination, and ends up -- where else? -- amid Taliban repression. The heroine, trapped in her burqa, can only watch as the Taliban confiscate books and musical instruments.

Like many Makhmalbaf films (most notably, "A Moment of Innocence"), "Kandahar" operates in the gray zone between fiction and reality. Pazira plays a character nearly indistinguishable from herself -- an exiled journalist named Nafas -- while the bulk of the supporting cast are refugees encountered by the filmmakers on the shoot along the Iran-Afghanistan border.

That's where the film begins, with Nafas flying in on a U.N. helicopter with only three days to reach Kandahar before the next eclipse of the sun. That's when Nafas' sister -- still stuck in Kandahar and despairing of life under Taliban misrule -- intends to take her own life. Nafas is eager to get moving, but the refugees she is to travel with show no such concern -- they've seen so much suffering that one more sad tale barely registers. She bribes one old man to let her accompany his family as they cross the border, so she dons a burqa and pretends to be his fourth wife. They don't get far, though, before being robbed of everything by gunmen.

The old man decides to return to the camp in Iran, but Nafas, desperate, scours a nearby village for another guide. She meets a young boy, Khak (Sadou Teymouri), who had just been thrown out of a religious school for failing to memorize the Koran. The scene documents the notorious Taliban madrassas where mullahs mix Koranic studies with automatic weapons.

Khak is a hustler -- even trying to sell Nafas a ring he steals from a corpse -- but he helps her make progress. Then further down the road, Nafas meets Tabib Sahid (Hassan Tantaoe), a black American who came to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahadin but has since decided to take another path, working as a traveling doctor. Even he is wary of entering Kandahar, so he hooks her up with a money-hungry amputee, Hayat (Hayatallah Hakimi), who tries to smuggle her into the city with a wedding party. There, they are stopped by the Taliban . . .

This being a Makhmalbaf film, you shouldn't expect a thrilling conclusion, but still, the ending feels all too abrupt. Less than the journey, what lingers in the mind are any number of poignant details, often as unintentionally ironic as they are just plain sad: burqa-clad women using mirrors and makeup under their tent-like garb; landmine victims on crutches racing like athletes to grab some para-dropped artificial limbs; and women being examined by a doctor through a coin-size hole in a heavy drape.

The irrationality of Taliban rule is an easy target -- Tabib Sahid, who can't grow a beard, is forced to don a fake one -- but the omnipresence of landmine victims is a fact that indicts other criminals as well. As Sahid puts it, "Weapons are the only modern thing in Afghanistan," which is a simple thought that expresses more truth about the country's problems than any amount of Op-Ed punditry.

In an age where everyone seems to be rushing to embrace comic-book political extremes -- "the Great Satan" vs. "the evil one" -- now, more than ever, we need artists to speak the truth, to express ideas more nuanced than a sound bite, to retain a sense of conscience in the whirlwind of ideology.

Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar" is not a "political" film, but a human one. It merely shows us the situation and thereby suggests the question, "How can we allow this to continue?"



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