Kandahar leaves the viewer angry and disappointed
By Sima Saeedi
Translated by Sussan Tahmasebi
January 2, 2002
This article originally appeared in tehranavenue.com.
So, Kandahar too is now free. The Taleban have taken refuge underground
and the people of Afghanistan wish upon Molla Omar the same terrible death
inflicted on Najib Ollah. Reconstruction efforts have begun, despite the
fact that the flames of war are still ablaze. And still, Afghan children
remain hungry and Afghan women don't wholly believe that they can take off
For over two decades now, Iran has been host to its Afghan neighbors
fleeing war. We have not always been kind, but, as of late, we have become
very kind. Our people and our artists have become kinder indeed, though
each in their own ways.
The Afghans who sought refuge within our borders had not seen the silver
screens of the cinema for years. But due to auspicious occasions brought
about after the events of September 11th, and the military intervention
of the US and UK in Afghanistan, those Afghans, housed in refugee camps
near the Iranian border, were given the glorious opportunity to look up
at radiant faces adorning movie screens. The rest of the world too was not
unkind. Several well-known filmmakers and stars generously donated a portion
of their earnings to the Afghan cause.
But, we don't have to travel too far, as last year two well-know Iranian
filmmakers chose the Afghan cause as subjects for their films, one of them
being none other than Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who, with his film Kandahar,
has now become a world traveler.
What does Kandahar give its audience? To watch Kandahar
is not to travel to Kandahar at all. Even the traveler to Kandahar,
at the end of the film, has yet to reach her destination. Instead, she remains
close by, in the desert lands that start in the eastern most part of Iran
and end in the most western part of Afghanistan.
Suspended between a documentary and a docudrama, Kandahar leaves
the viewer angry and disappointed. But, if you are looking for symbols,
then this film will indeed amuse you. Perhaps, through use of symbols, the
film is indeed successful in accomplishing one thing -- perpetuating
stereotypes that exist in the mind of viewers.
The heroin of the film is a female reporter, schooled at an elite university
in the West, who sets out to reach Kandahar in search of a sister
who has lost her leg in the mine filled lands of Afghanistan, and who plans
to take her own life during the next eclipse of the sun.
Nafas ("Breath" in Persian) is determined to bring hope
and new life to the empty spirit of her sister. She begins her journey to
Kandahar in search of excuses that could turn death away from her sister's
doorstep. Khak ("Earth"), a boy who has been turned away
from the religious schools of the Taliban, due to his lack of talent in
Qoranic incantations, becomes Nafas' guide, so he can take her to visit
a traveling doctor.
The Doctor takes Nafas into the desert (!) where two European women running
a Red Cross camp bestow artificial limbs, upon limbless men, who represent
millions of Afghanis victimized in the endless minefields of Afghanistan.
It seems that Makhmalbaf's impressions of Afghanistan are supposed to
reach their highpoint and leave the viewer mesmerized in a scene where limbless
men, with their eyes glued to the sky, run to claim flying limbs being dropped
by parachute from the sky. But, before this happens, one nagging question
emerges in the minds of viewers: "On whose limping strides does Makhmalbaf
intend to travel the world?"
Logic in the film Kandahar, unlike the Burka of Afghani women,
has a colorless presence. Only symbols, haplessly placed, one next to the
other, are offered to the viewer. Nafas, played by Nilofar Pazeera, who
has lived abroad for some time, views Afghanis from an elite and Western
perspective, as she attempts to buy her people, one by one, with the American
dollars she has brought from abroad. Unfortunately, it seems that the Afghan
people are only a means by which Nafas can reach her dying sister in Kandahar.
There is little emotion or connection on the part of Nafas toward her land
or her people. The character is indeed so disconnected from her country
and her culture, that she records messages in English for her dying
sister in the hand-held tape recorder she has taken with her on her journey
into Afghanistan. Perhaps this too results from the Director's overwhelming
desire for international recognition.
Pain and suffering, after two decades of war, have perhaps seeped to
the core of the being of the Afghan people, but not in the same manner as
expressed in the film. It is with great audacity that Makhmalbaf attempts
to portray, through a scene where Khak steels a ring from a corpse, an Afghani
populace who have become numb to the misery of death and killing. What Makhmalbaf
fails to portray is the fact that one can never become numb to the destruction
of war, the destruction of death and killing, even in a place that has endured
more than its share. At the same time, Makhmalbaf asks viewers to suspend
their disbelief and to believe that a woman who would be so daring as to
travel into the minefields of Afghanistan, into war torn territories, would
be so faint hearted to be frightened by the sight of a ring stolen from
a corpse, and to be bullied by her young guide.
Though Kandahar is now enjoying world fame, it presents a superficial
view of Afghanistan and the struggle of its people, so much so that it is
indeed offensive. Over reliance on symbols, waters down the complexity of
this ancient land, especially the tribal distinctions that are a hallmark
The Afghan actor of the film too views her land with the same perspective
as that of the Director-a Director who was the creator of some of the most
daring post revolutionary Iranian films. The fact that Makhmalbaf has chosen
not to travel into the depths of the spirit of the Afghan people, their
struggle and their resistance, in light of this director's past achievements,
is indeed perplexing to the Iranian viewer. Why is it that Makhmalbaf remains
content with presenting the brave, hidden, and enduring struggle of the
Afghan people through the insufficient representation of only one single
scene where the Taliban confiscate a book and musical instrument, being
unlawfully smuggled by guests at a wedding procession?
The superficial view of the Afghan struggle in Kandahar leaves
the viewer thinking that perhaps Makhmalbaf's view of the Afghan people
is based solely on the image of the Afghan laborer in Iran, who has often
been forced to endure misery and humiliation. Has Makhmalbaf forgotten that
many of these Afghan laborers have chosen the humiliation that is part and
parcel of the lives of common laborers in Iran and the displacement brought
about by refugee life, as an act of resistance, a refusal to serve in the
army of the Taliban? The beauty of Afghanistan is in the quiet and enduring
resistance of the Afghan people -- a resistance which until very
recently was fought in solitude and silence.
Last year, a young photographer captured the image of an Afghani refugee
family-a mother and father and their six children-living in the south of
Tehran. He explained that the couple, both physicians, are parents to six
illiterate children. I could not help but to laugh when I heard that the
Afghani people, due to the generosity of Makhmalbaf, would become the proud
owners of a school named Felini in Kandahar. In our country, where directors,
because they continually capture images of destitution and suffering are
being awarded international prizes, Afghan children remain illiterate. So,
what do we tell these children? Should we tell them that they must remain
illiterate until Kandahar is set free? Until a school by the name of Felini
is built? Until they are able to return home and register at the school
of Makhmalbaf? (In those days Kandahar had yet to be set free.)
Makhmalbaf offers a literacy program through which every Afghan child,
in a minimal amount of time (five-ten months), can become literate. Nabi
Khalili, an Afghani journalist, in an article, titled, "Your Program
Only Masks the Pain," published in Entekhab Daily on November
27th, 2001, while thanking those who are empathetic toward the problems
of the Afghani people, provided an analysis of Makhmalbaf's literacy program.
"I wonder how much of the attention being paid to the Afghan situation,"
Khalili asks, "is real and how much of it are motivated by political
considerations?" We can assure Mr. Khalili that our Director has demonstrated
on several occasions that he is indeed apprehensive toward politicians,
but that he has been swept by waves of empathy now awash.
It may be appropriate here to discuss a documentary by Sayareh Shah,
an Afghani journalist, who resides in London, in which daring journalistic
quality is apparent. She begins her journey to Afghanistan, by capturing
onto film the demonstrations of Afghani feminists in Pakistan. Shah truly
travels to the depths of the war torn cities of her country and brings to
the viewer images of underground schools where education is provided to
girls who have been banned from public spheres and takes us to the home
business of a hairstylist in Afghanistan, who while applying makeup to the
face of her customer, says: "this is how we resist." Life amidst
death, reconstruction amidst destruction, this is the long tradition of
the Afghani people.
Shah does not have an elite view of her people and of her country. She
literally travels among her people from behind the cover of a Burka and
not the closed or open lens of a camera. Her work, while not being free
of flaws, does not claim to be an artistic representation of Afghanistan.
At the same time, it offers the viewer a much better representation of Afghanistan,
than Makhmalbaf's Kandahar-which seems to speak more of the director's
desire for fame, than on what truly goes on in Afghanistan.
Many of us reminisce about the days when we would wait, heedless of the
cold and rain, in the long lines outside Cinema Azadi, to see and hear anything
that Makhmalbaf had to say. Now, he appears calmly and dignified on stages
in Paris, London, and Venice and we can only be proud. He doesn't speak
to us anymore. He is an international star and what he says addresses his
international audience. If we criticize or object, we are immediately labeled
as envious -- which is indeed what we are. We are envious of all
those people who are viewing Makhmalbaf's work for the first time. They
have never had to endure the cold of Tehran in February*, and they get to
watch Makhmalbaf's work, now a world-renowned filmmaker, from the comfort
of standardized seats in luxurious theatres. And, so why shouldn't we be
We wish him good luck and for ourselves we hold on to the memories
of those cold days, when we took refuge in the warmth of Cinema Azadi.