Reviewed By Thom
Posted 12/19/01 18:36:17

"No women were harmed in the making of this film."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

An Afghan-Canadian woman (Nafas, played by Nelofar Pazira) takes a journey through the Taliban ruled deserts to rescue her sister from suicide and along the way confronts the horrible conditions of the Afghani people and especially Afghani women. Nafas is recording everything as a message of hope to her sister and the film itself is a message of hope for Afghani women and the Afghani people who have been devastated by war and famine.

Afghani is a misnomer. The people of Afghanistan belong to four major ethnic tribal groups – the Uzbecks, the Tajiks, the Pashtuns and the Hazaras. Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a celebrated powerhouse of Iranian cinema, did not use any actors and couldn’t get the extras from different tribes to act together in any scene. When asked, each tribe thinks their tribe is the best tribe and they would never consider even talking to a member of a different tribe. It is only when the illiterate and isolated tribespeople cross over into Iran as refugees do they get a sense that they are part of a collective identity known as “Afghanis”. They are ashamed to associate themselves with each other and the blanket identity hurts their pride and self-esteem.

Mahkmalbaf couldn’t avoid being part of the general humanitarian effort that draws in any foreigner upon seeing the starvation and misery of the Afghani people. The village where Kandahar was shot, he found out, is along a local smugglers route and he had to change locations many times and stay disguised. The making of the film was perilous.

For all the real world danger, the film itself is beautiful. Stark deserts, the colorful and austere clusters of women in burkas, the traditional head to toe headdress worn by all women upon pain of death under the Taliban.

The plot stays focused on Nafas and each person she encounters as she tries to get to Kandahar helps life the veil a little more on every day life for the Afghanis. Women are not allowed to travel alone so Nafas must continue to find people who will help her while being careful not to transgress against the strict laws of conduct. Trusting the wrong person could lead to death. Since this film was made, Afghanistan has changed quite a bit. Today, The Taliban has been largely defeated and the US is flying a flag and putting together a UN backed team to create an interim international occupation. It’s hard to say who in Afghanistan will be able to set up the kind of administration necessary to be intimidated and exploited by US economic interests. Its better for the US to just starve the people and seize the land. Most likely, that is what the CEO’s and Senators would want but that would make the US government look a little less like a hero and a little more like the heartless, amoral, entity that it is on an adminstrative level.)

Under the naturally elegant coffee table book images light years away from the comfort of my life, are a devastated people, suffocating women, starving children, confusion, hysteria and an eerie silence. She never does make it to her sister’s at Kandahar. The film ends as she is on the last leg of the trip and Nafas comes to realize that her soul is wrapped up in this journey.

In an early scene, some women she is travelling with put on jewelry, nail polish and makeup. In Afghanistan, there are underground beauty parlors where women come together to be the women they were before the Taliban stripped them of their basic rights, covered them up and locked them up in their homes. These women are courageous radicals and Nafas represents the women outside of Afghanistan who support the plight of women inside Afghanistan.

Like I mentioned, the women of Afghanistan still belong to ethnic groups with a profound and historical seperation. So while a Canadian like Nafas may want to bring her Afghani sisters out from under the veil, she couldn’t get women from two tribes talking. That may change. There is a radical womens group in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan recently featured on the Oprah Winfrey show and in dozens of American media outlets ( with support from hundreds of international affinity groups who are helping the struggle for cultural transformation and the liberation of women in Afghanistan. Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues, has made the plight of Afghani women her personal project. It is dangerous work. Not so dangerous as before but there is a coalition of powerful interested parties to advocate on their behalf in the post-Taliban power grab and governmental restructuring.

Kandahar is based loosely on the true life saga of lead actress Nelofar Pazira, who is no actress at all. When she was young, her family left Afghanistan for Canada. She left behind a childhood friend. After many years of writing, the letters from her friend became more bleak, and finally, suicidal, during the war with the Soviet Union and then life under Taliban rule. She returned to Afghanistan to rescue her friend. In the film, the friend is turned into her sister.

The story didn’t happen in real life as it is told but all the events and characters are reenactments of things Makhmalbaf saw or heard about. In our news hungry times, Kandahar gives a fictional glimpse behind the veil in a way that conveys a general truth without diving too far into the complex social and political climate of the country that we are all suddenly interested in.

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