We hear a lot about Afghanistan these days, but we see very little of it. Other than occasional shots of bleak mountain passes thought to be home to terrorist warlords, and, of course, US army tanks. Before 9/11, before Afghanistan took its place on political center stage, Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf made Kandahar.
Set in Iran and Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban, it tells the partly fictionalized story of an Afghan-Canadian journalist (Nelofer Pazira), traveling to the city of Kandahar to find her little sister, who has threatened to commit suicide.
Kandahar was officially filmed along the Iranian border (in the refugee village of Niatack), but it has been widely reported that Makhmalbaf covertly filmed in neighboring Afghanistan. Apparently, the start of his shoot was plagued by lack of sanitation and water, threats from bandits and vigilantes, the arrival of starving refugees, and the villagers' lack of understanding (a makeshift cinema had to be set up to explain what a 'movie' was). Not an easy shoot, but he was determined to create a story that was authentic and involved real people instead of just actors.
Kandahar is not without controversy (one of its actors allegedly committed terrorist acts on behalf of the Iranian goverment). However, it offers a unique opportunity to view the landscape of the Iranian-Afghan border, the harsh, sandy terrain and the extreme poverty that inhabits it, juxtaposed with the colorful fabrics that adorn it. As its director himself states, 'This film is like a travel guide. Its form came to me whilst writing the screenplay and evolved whilst filming.'
It starts with a journey by helicopter over arid mountains. It then takes to the plains, vast sweeping expanses of sand, which are bleakly picturesque. The landscape provides a stark backdrop to Afghan society, the contradictions of a people largely unknown to the rest of the world. The humiliation of the burqas conceals a world of indiscretions – the application of makeup, hidden objects, and sometimes even fugitive men.
One powerful scene shows a religious school full of tiny boys swaying and chanting the Koran, then extolling the virtues of the Kalashnikov. Another, almost sculptural in form, shows a group of women in colorful burqas on their way to a wedding party. Another watches as landmine amputees run across the sand to catch artificial limbs falling in parachutes from Red Cross planes overhead.
Makhmalbaf has described Afghanistan as 'a country without images', meaning that it has an absence of cinema, television, books and photography, all 'impurities' banned under the Taliban. By entering the country to make Kandahar (a city never quite reached in the film), he has brought rare images of this isolated country to us. – Roshan McArthur