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Kandahar (2001)

Cynthia Fuchs

There is also no end, at least as a Western viewer might imagine it, to the desert culture represented here, the traditions and meanings of Afghanistan, before, during, and perhaps after, the Taliban.


Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Cast: Nelofer Pazira, Hassan Tantai, Sadou Teymouri
MPAA rating: not rated
Studio: Avatar Films
First date: 2001
US Release Date: 2001-12-14

The desert stretches before you, superb and daunting. And yet, you can't quite see it clearly, because your view is obscured by the burkha that you cannot remove in public. Yet, you lift the netting slowly, to peer out, to see the golden sand and bright blue sky. The scene is breathtaking, in its scope and beauty, as well as in its harshness. There is no end to it, the desert.

There is also no end, at least as a Western viewer might imagine it, to the desert culture represented here, the traditions and meanings of Afghanistan, before, during, and perhaps after, the Taliban. Not so long ago, most U.S. viewers would not have known what a burkha was, but recent events -- namely, the war in Afghanistan -- have made visible this ancient land's vast surfaces and cultural traditions, if not the Afghanis' day-to-day realities. On the U.S. nightly news, the point of view remains necessarily removed: you look at women in burkhas, you imagine what it must be like to see the world from inside a head-to-foot veil, and you assume that you'd seek another way to see and to live.

In the States, the sudden and unexpected relevancy of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar has to do with these recent events. But the timing doesn't make the film's timelessness any less acute or haunting. Set on the Iran-Afghanistan border, it follows the attempts of a young Afghani-born woman, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), on her return home, after living in Canada for many years. Having recently received word from her sister that she is despairing and near suicidal, having lost her legs to a land mine and recently abandoned by her family in Kandahar, where, as a woman alone, she is essentially property, now discarded and unprotected, without hope.

The semi-documentary film, performed by nonprofessional actors, is based on the life of its primary actor, Canadian journalist Pazira, whose own family moved from Afghanistan in 1989, when she was 16. When, in the late 1990s, she learned that a childhood friend was suffering under the Taliban, Pazira attempted to find her by contacting the revered Iranian filmmaker Makhmalbaf, in part because his 1987 film, The Cyclist, portrayed Afghan refugees sympathetically. Though he was unable to help Pazira cross into Afghanistan, he suggested that they publicize the situation by making the film Kandahar.

The result is an incredible journey, beginning in the Iranian-Afghani border town Niatak, across the Dashi e Margo desert to Kandahar. Donning the requisite burkha (through which the camera looks repeatedly, to remind you what she sees and doesn't see), Nafas meets various characters, witnesses numerous wretched situations, and speaks her reactions into a tape recorder, as if articulating them will make sense of the experience. Though she initially convinces a man to let her pose as his fourth wife, as he and his family travel to Kandahar, their truck is stolen by bandits and the man leaves her as an unnecessary nuisance, alone in the desert. A young boy, Khak (Sadou Teymouri), eager to make some money from this woman in need, agrees to lead her to a village. Here she meets a doctor, Tabib Sahid (Hassan Tantai), who turns out to be an African American who has come to Afghanistan, he says, in search of God.

Tabib is certainly an intriguing figure. He says that he left the States as a fugitive from the law, admits that he doesn't have a proper medical degree, but insists, convincingly, that he wants to help people in need, particularly the women deprived of education, medicine, and mobility under the Taliban. His treatment of women is limited to observing them through a hole in a sheet (no one is allowed to look on a woman but her husband/owner). Moreover, recent extra-filmic information has deepened the intrigue -- reports that Hassan Tantai an American-born Muslim who supposedly fought with the mujehedeen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and who may be a one-time assassin, sent in 1980 by the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime to kill anti-Khomeini Iranian political dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabai, then residing in Bethesda, Maryland.

Whether or not any of this bizarre story is true, it surely raises more questions, most unanswerable, concerning the persistent, seemingly unpassable distance between Western observations and assumptions and Middle Eastern experiences and beliefs. Makhmalbaf has told interviewers that he didn't check up on the performer's history, indeed, that such background-checking is hardly the norm in moviemaking. In any event, Tabib looks after Nafas with a remarkable dedication, agreeing to take her on his wagon in search of someone to escort her to Kandahar (interestingly, he won't take her himself, claiming that he is a "wanted man"). Tabib does offer up the film's most overt philiosophizing, explaining his concept of hope to Nafas, even as hers runs down (she has a deadline, as her sister has set a deadline for her suicide (during the upcoming solar eclipse, in three days time). "Hope," he intones, "It's abstract, but for the thirsty, it's water." And for a woman, he goes on, "hope is the day she will be seen."

Vision -- the crucial task of seeing and being seen -- is Kandahar's most urgent theme. As poetic abstraction, political metaphor, and purposeful undertaking, the idea of vision dominates the film, in the immeasurable desertscapes or the limited frames of doorways and burkhas. Nafas's insistence on seeing and being seen puts her at risk, as when she repeatedly pulls back her burkha when asking speaking with someone. But serving as a viewers' surrogate, her resolve is, of course, both formally and ideologically necessary.

Of the many striking scenes she witnesses, one stands out, both for its essential observation as much as for its immense tragedy. Nafas and Dr. Tabib come across a Red Cross station, where two women doctors are meting out precious artificial legs, for which the many needy victims of landmines ("There are mines everywhere") must wait for years and more. (One man, whose hand has been blown off, asks for a replacement, to which the doctor can only say, again and again, "We don't have hands here.") As Nafas and Tabib discuss her need to get to Kandahar, asking the Red Cross doctors' help in securing a means of transportation, dozens of legless men hobble back and forth in the background, practicing with their crutches, "pacing" in their determination to get attention and new limbs.

When a plane flies by, dropping a parachuted package that appears to be another single set of legs, the men all rush to the spot as a herd, propelling themselves over the shifting sand on their crutches. It's a stunning sight, and a usefully severe reminder that all war victims, regardless of gender or nationality, suffer. Still, Kandahar insists, there are infinite kinds of suffering. Where these men, hobbling as they may be, can move across the land as they desire or need, they can also look skyward, their faces open to the sun. Meanwhile, Nafas looks out on them, her view and her movement limited.

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