Thursday, July 11, 2013

Film #99: Kandahar (2001)

Original Farsi Language Title: Safar e Ghandehar

Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Times Previously Seen: none

Rapid-Fire Summary (No spoilers)

Afghan refugee-turned-reporter returns to her country of origin to find and hopefully rescue her suicidal sister. Is helped and hindered by various locals.

Extended Summary (Including Spoilers. Fair warning)

In the year 2000, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira) is a reporter who, a decade prior, fled from Afghanistan to Canada with most of her family. Now, she is returning to find her sister, who was accidentally left behind when the family left the war-torn country. Nafas has received an alarming letter from her sister, stating that her sister will commit suicide on the evening of the final eclipse of the 21st century, citing her overwhelming depression at her situation in a country falling more and more firmly into the grip of the ultra-conservative Taliban.

Nafas, having re-donned the burka (face covering up, at the moment) in order to traverse the ultra-conservative regions of her home country.

With two days remaining before the coming eclipse, Nafas must first don the full-body covering burka and pose as a wife of a local man who, with his family, is attempting to return to their home village in Afghanistan by crossing from the Iran border. She and the family only get so far into the country before they are robbed and left stranded by their driver. In the nearest village, she finds Khak (Sadou Teimouri), a young boy who has just been expelled from a Koranic school. Khak agrees to help Nafas get to Kandahar for cash payment.

After some arduous travel on foot over the desert landscape, Nafas becomes ill from drinking water from a local well. In the next village, she meets a doctor, Tabib (Hassan Tantai) who she soon learns is actually an African-American man who is helping the locals with their various ailments. The exact path that Tabib took to get where he is remains a mystery, but he has a genuine desire to help the people in Afghanistan in whatever ways that he can. Nafas leaves Khak behind, and Tabib takes her in his carriage back into the desert.

A little farther along, Tabib and Nafas arrive in a Red Cross camp, where international nurses are assisting local people in getting prosthetic legs to replace those that so many of them have lost to landmines scattered throughout the country. Among these men is a shifty, one-armed man named Hayat, who has pestered the nurses into giving him a set of legs. Nafas now must use Hayat as her guide, as Tabib must turn back from the strictly-Taliban controlled Kandahar region, which is now within reach. Nafas and Hayat both don burkas and join an all-female wedding party, hoping to slip past any Taliban sentries that they might meet along the way.

Black-clad females working with the Taliban search the wedding party for paraphernalia that goes against their strict Koranic beliefs. 

Upon nearing Kandahar, the wedding party is met by several Taliban guards. After searching the entire party for any contraband that they deem defies strict Islamic law, the guards pull several members of the party aside, including Hayat, whom they have uncovered as a man. Hayat joins the other separated members, and we are left to wonder what punishments face them.

Nafas gets past the guards and rejoins the wedding party. Now, with the sun setting on the final day before the eclipse, Nafas can see Kandahar in the distance.

My Take on the Film (Done before any further research)

Kandahar is certainly a hard-hitting film, and one that is still just as relevant as it was upon its release over a decade ago. While I can quibble over the technical merits of it as a film, the subject matter will force anyone, especially anyone in the United States, to take notice, considering how our country is still embroiled in a seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan.

The only real demerits that can count deal with the acting and an occasional lack of clarity. The acting, I assume out of necessity, is not of the highest quality. It seems that the filmmaker opted to use authentic, amateur actors, in order to convey authenticity. The actors, I assume, are all Afghans. I also assume that, in such a war-torn area, the talent pool for actors is quite shallow. As such, the deliveries of lines are not always very natural.

The lack of clarity only emerges from viewers possibly not knowing much about strict Islamic laws and cultural patterns. I, myself, know just enough about the harsh rules imposed upon women in this part of the world, especially in the Taliban-controlled areas such as Kandahar, so I understood why the doctor Tabib needed a sheet between himself and the women he was treating. There are many other cultural norms that might seem puzzling to a viewer unfamiliar with them, and there are not really expositions given to explain them. Of course, this also solidifies just how these things are norms for these people, so explicit explanation would likely come off as being unnatural.

The highly memorable and perplexing moment when Tabib meets and "examines" Nafas. The sheet is meant to prevent a Muslim man from laying eyes on any woman who is not his wife.

Aside from these two areas, the movie is incredibly effective. The world that Nafas must negotiate in order to reach her sister is truly saddening and terrifying. They are all the more-so because they were and are still the reality for many people in this part of the world. There are more than a few scenes that, once you see them, you’re unlikely to ever forget. The scenes in which the young boy Khak is expelled from the Koranic school are just a few examples. Seeing rows and rows of young boys being fully brainwashed to alternately recite the Koran and give descriptions of the various weapons that they are holding (including sabers and machine guns) is harrowing. Scenes like this give some explanation as to why this country has never been conquered in history – a strictly-enforced, unwavering inculcation into religious zealotry and warfare.

Other scenes are equally heart-breaking. The Afghan men with one or both legs lost to landmines. The widowed women sitting in the middle of a dusty graveyard, nothing more to do but keep themselves under their burkas and bemoan their lost family members. The large troop of women moving along the desert, fully covered with their strikingly vibrant burkas. The images are so arresting that one would be tempted to think that they are completely contrived and staged. However, I never felt this way. The sad truth is that I have little doubt that all of these scenes depict the brutal realities of the lives of these people.

One of the many unforgettably heart-breaking scenes in the film - when men missing legs from landmines rush across the desert plain to chase prosthetic limbs being air-dropped from planes flying overhead.

Kandahar is the kind of movie that every person should see at least once. It’s bound to not only raise one’s awareness of how much some people in the world struggle for mere survival, but it can also make one appreciate just how many liberties most of us have. The purpose of the filmmakers was clearly to show the rest of us just how many of the things that we take for granted have been reduced to unrealistic dreams for people in this particular part of the world. It’s not an enjoyable message to receive, but one that we should receive nonetheless.

Upon Further Review (Done after a little more research)

This film has a few incredible facts behind it, one of which is the single most shocking thing that I’ve read in relation to any of the nearly 100 films that I’ve reviewed for this site.

I watched a 20-minutes documentary on the film and learned a few extremely fascinating, and ever more upsetting, things about the film. But this did not contain the shocker.

The primary one is that the film’s star, Nelofer Pazira, is actually playing a very close version of herself. The story of Nafas is a very close approximation of her own life as an Afghan refugee who risked the highly dangerous return to her home country to try and find a friend who she was worried might kill herself out of despair. After receiving her journalism degree in Canada, Pazira, who was only in her late twenties at the time, went through and witnessed many of the situations depicted in the film. Amazing, but this was still not the major shocker.

Nelofer Pazira, in the middle of one of the countless speaking engagements she has done since the movie was released. She has since been a tireless spokeswoman for civil right in the home country from which she and her family fled.

Another point of interest is how the film vaulted to world consciousness. It was initially released in May and August of 2001 at a few film festivals, where it received solid critical acclaim. Then, of course, September 11th of that year happened. All of a sudden, interest in the Taliban skyrocketed for obvious reasons. At this point, the film and Nelofer Pazira were launched into global awareness, and Pazira began a tireless series of public speaking engagements through which she informed people about the brutal realities in which she grew up and from which she and her family had escaped. It all puts a very real face, one that can be seen prominently, in the movie. This is all extremely important, but it is still not the major shock.

The major shock relates to the man billed as Hassan Tantai, who plays the doctor who assists Nafas. When you see the film, it is easy to note that the man has a pitch-perfect North American English accent. I couldn’t help wonder how a man from the U.S. ended up in an all-Afghan film. Here’s how: Hassan Tantai is a stage name for Dawud Salahuddin – one of the most notorious assassins in United States lore. His given name was David Belfield, and he was born in North Carolina to a southern Baptist family. He converted to Islam in the 1970s, adopted extremely conservative Muslim values, and earned the trust of the Republic of Iran’s secret service. In 1980, on U.S. soil, he assassinated a former Iranian diplomat who the Iranian secret service had said defamed the Ayatollah Khomeini. Salahuddin fled the U.S., his relationship with the U.S. has been murky ever since, though is still listed as “wanted” by the F.B.I.

Dawud Salahuddin, from U.S. citizen to Iranian assassin to actor. His is a strange life that begs the question why he was cast in the film. The director's words (below) help shed some light on the decision.

With all of this in mind, it was very interesting to see a quote from the film’s director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He said that Salahuddin, “…is also a victim – a victim of the ideal that he believed in. His humanity, when he opened fire against his ideological enemy, was martyred by his idealism.” Very profound and controversial ideas, indeed.

Knowing all of this, I can only hope that people take some valuable lessons from the film and Pazira’s story. Though it is technically a fictional drama, the reality that inspired it can only spur one to think far beyond what is seen in the 85 minutes of the film.

That’s a wrap. 99 shows down; 6 to go.

Coming Soon: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)


On a much brighter and more frivolous note, I next get to revisit Middle Earth, as Peter Jackson so wonderfully brought it to screens. 

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.