starring Niloufar Pazira, Hassan Tantai, Sadou Teymouri
written and directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), an Afghani journalist, fled to Canada but has returned to Kandahar upon learning that her sister, maimed by a landmine, intends to kill herself on the day of a solar eclipse. Nafas dons the suffocating burqa, required garb of Afghan women, suffers at the hands of bandits and polluted well water, and generally takes her own sweet time getting to where she's going, which speaks again, after all, to the idea that the movie is not about what the movie is about.
Punctuated by maudlin and clumsily-improvised audio journal logs addressed to Nafas's sister, Kandahar has three awesome moments: a parachute drop of prosthetic limbs that the mutilated crutches after en masse; a shot around a well of a burqa-clad retinue doing their wash; and an extended sequence in the doctor's "office" of an American black Muslim (Hassan Tantai) practicing in Afghanistan. Examinations involve the doctor relaying his questions and instructions through an intermediary (he is apparently banned from speaking directly to the women), and looking at their mouths and eyes through a hole cut in a black curtain bisecting the room. The resulting pictures are at once absurd and poignant, evoking Jim Warren's surrealist paintings and making the same effective points on the violent suppression of sexuality.
Had Kandahar been a silent film composed entirely of blasted brown wastelands and moments such as these depicting the raw absurdist realities of life on this planet, the effect would have startled us. As it is, the awkward dialogue and endless screentime devoted to redundant proselytizing serve mainly as extended moments of reverie, during which we cogitate upon the things we have seen and wonder if there's anything else of value forthcoming. Kandahar neuters its power by trying to be a traditional narrative told in the traditional way. Taken with the truncated anticlimax of the film (suggesting a loss of funding or a general cluelessness towards third acts), Kandahar is all about implications and horrific suggestions, something that is hard enough to carry off when it's intentional, almost impossible when, as in this case, it's the product of an incompetent storyteller pointing his camera at something intense.
Yet the stickiness of Kandahar is more complicated than that. The picture gains a peculiar power through the realization that the United States has already overthrown the Taliban government. In a very real way, the film is a time capsule of a place that no longer exists and a situation that seems more a Kafkaesque portrayal of an allegorical Hell than an actual depiction of an extant state of affairs, anyway. In this way, Kandahar is an incomplete fantasy or a fragmentary science-fiction--it is resplendent with strangeness but falters badly in its inability to provide what's necessary to elevate it from a viewer's reflexive paternalistic racism and urge to find fault with a culture with which we are at war. In other words, Kandahar encourages the worst instincts of the broader audience drawn to it because of its setting. Moviegoer misinterpretation is a malady that afflicts a great many films, to be sure, but Kandahar is particularly unfortunate in that it is helpless to either defend or condemn its subject, resigned to be a collection of malformed ideas, ineffectual performances, and, perhaps unfortunately, the occasional blinding, incandescent image. Originally published: January 18, 2002.