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Kandahar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf) 2001

Thanks to real world events that have occurred since its production, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, obviously set in Afghanistan, marks the clear arrival of the year’s most politically “important” film. The real horror though is that most American audiences probably would have calmly shrugged off the atrocities in it had it not been for the September 11th terrorist attacks. The film is strong enough to stand without the piquancy of current headlines, however, and it’s not surprising that it was being shown in North America before the attacks occurred. Though its commercial potential has undoubtedly increased, the film is about as far as possible from an exploitation of tragedy. Like many films of the Iranian new wave, it has an apparent paucity of narrative event, but a symbolic depth that few movies from other countries can match.

In the film, one is never certain whether a scene has been scripted or not, many of the film’s scenes have been redubbed, suggesting the environment was not conducive to sound recording, and most of the actors are obviously nonprofessional. As a result, the viewer loses their ability to shield themselves from the inhumanity on display in the film. We can never assure ourselves that the film is a work of fiction. American viewers have grown used to either an ironic or melodramatic distance in films that is completely absent here. The world presented is so without artifice that it disarms. Every scene is established as a functioning piece of the world before the main character shows up, lending an air of authenticity. Though many Iranian films have blurred the line between narrative and documentary, few use the device so unnervingly.

This isn’t to suggest that Makhmalbaf works in a strictly verite style, though. His film astonishes since it is alternatively grounded in reality and detached from it. The plot follows a woman as she travels across Afghanistan to reach her sister, but we never see a world outside the country to present an alternative. Afghanistan, in the picture’s mind, is a nightmare that after it ends is revealed to have been reality all along. Makhmalbaf drives this feeling home with his use of the film’s imagery. When we see a scene early on that shows a group of legless men on crutches running across the desert toward a helicopter that is dropping what appear to be legs, it feels like an absurdist fantasy. When that image is repeated later on, it is a grim example of the reality of this world. The myriad technical imperfections of in the film do indeed distract us from the plot, but that’s really so that the plot is more effective. Clearly, Makhmalbaf demonstrates elsewhere in this film, and in his other works that he is quite capable of using his technical skills to achieve a desired effect. Perhaps, the best example of this is the scene in which he shows a group of burqa-covered women as they are searched by another covered woman – none of them look human in that situation. That the director is able to allow technical imperfections to influence his work shows an exceptionally high level of skill. That he places that skill behind such a neglected and worthy plight is downright humanitarian.



Jeremy Heilman