From the looks of things, Saving Private Ryan really raised the bar when it comes to artful gore in American war movies. Two recent examples -- Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers -- deliver bludgeoning, hyperactive combat recreations that, impressively staged as they may be, can't help but come across as desperate impersonations of the style Spielberg crafted. With its vision of relentless combat within a political and moral void, the Somalia-set Black Hawk Down may be expert military procedural, but it's also war movie as video game despite its best intentions -- just the kind of filmmaking that Paul Verhoeven sent up in Starship Troopers. The proto-Vietnam War We Were Soldiers, by contrast, takes pains to provide context -- a fundamentally decent film drowning under its sometimes overwhelming homefront hokum. But despite their differences, both films fall prey to the same miscalculation, pretending that there's something honorable and unknown being communicated by carefully and expensively produced shots of limbs and digits being blown off, flesh being burned, and (fake) blood splattering a camera lens.
Kandahar, Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "eulogy to human dignity" and investigation of life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, is also a film about violence, albeit one that refrains from offering the dubious pleasure of watching it. Instead, Kandahar is a film about the aftershocks of military violence -- the mutilated bodies, spirits, and psyches of a civilian population struggling through 20 years of strife. The Afghanistan captured by Kandahar is one giant scar.
"This is a film about what war does to a country," says Nelofer Pazira, Kandahar's lead "actress," speaking by phone from her Ontario home. "It doesn't matter whether it comes from the Russians or the tyranny of the Saudi- and Pakistan-created Taliban or the current American and coalition forces."
Shot in late 2000 in the Afghan refugee village of Niatek along the Iran-Afghanistan border, Kandahar was already notable when it debuted last summer at the Cannes Film Festival (Makhmalbaf, despite his low profile in the U.S., is one of the world's most acclaimed filmmakers, and Iran, despite the fundamentalist theocracy that runs the country, boasts one of the world's most fertile and celebrated film scenes). But the film was suddenly vaulted into international prominence in the days after September 11th and especially when the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan put the country on everyone's minds. And so what was once a hopeful humanitarian cry for help has now become an international cause célèbre, commanding previously unimagined attendance figures across Europe and penetrating more U.S. markets than is the norm for most foreign "art" cinema.
Kandahar is based on Pazira's own story and subsequent, often clandestine, research conducted by her and Makhmalbaf in Afghanistan. The 29-year-old Pazira is an Afghan native who fled the country with her parents as a teenager and settled in Canada. Now a journalist, Pazira received a letter in 1998 from a (female) childhood friend about how life had changed under the Taliban. Believing that her friend planned to commit suicide, Pazira attempted to enter Afghanistan (where it was illegal for women to travel alone) to find her. After a few unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the country, Pazira tracked down Makhmalbaf because she had seen an earlier film (The Cyclist) he'd made about Afghan refugees in Iran.
Makhmalbaf was unable to help Pazira locate her friend (a goal Pazira still hasn't fulfilled) but did decide, a couple of years later, to make a film about Afghanistan based on Pazira's story. He recruited her to come back to Iran to participate in it.
Battling intertribal tensions and suspicious reluctance among the refugees they recruited to appear in the film (most of whom had never seen a film), danger from land mines and Taliban patrols (Makhmalbaf had to work in disguise at one point when Taliban members came to look for him), and frequent stops to help starving refugees they found while scouting locations, Makhmalbaf and Pazira crafted a film where the considerable if unspectacular artistry on display is outweighed by the film's palpable urgency.
Kandahar, while not at all inaccessible (indeed, much of the film is in English and its storyline is elemental in its simplicity), will still provide a challenge to American viewers whose diet is restricted to Hollywood product. The current Iranian film scene is often compared to that of late-'40s Italian neorealism for its humanistic concern with social issues and, more importantly, for its reliance on location shooting and nonprofessional actors -- though Kandahar's dissolving of the boundaries between fiction, documentary, and essay might also evoke Jean-Luc Godard. There are no trained actors in Kandahar. Rather, everyone on screen is playing some variation on themselves, often recreating scenes from their lives. This leads to some stilted line readings but also to a kind of searing documentary similitude. In this manner, Kandahar has much more in common with the stark Kurdish refugee drama A Time For Drunken Horses than with the warmth and sentimentality of Children of Heaven and Color of Paradise, the only other Iranian films to play Memphis.
Kandahar is a journey into Afghanistan presented as a series of staccato set pieces, each delving into an aspect of a country that modernity forgot. Pazira plays Nafas, an Afghan exile returning to rescue a sister who has vowed to commit suicide at the next solar eclipse, only a few days away.
The film opens in a camp just across the Iranian border as refugees are preparing to return to Afghanistan. Makhmalbaf's camera pans across a row of Afghan girls as they are told that this will be their last day of school -- there are no schools for girls in Afghanistan, where the female literacy rate is only 15 percent -- and being trained not to pick up dolls or other shiny objects along the road that may to set off land mines. A shot of small bare feet carefully walking around the strewn dolls is one of the film's most heartbreaking images.
The film also offers an inside look, albeit a pointedly exaggerated one, at an Afghan madrassa, a religious school where young boys are indoctrinated. Here the boys take turns chanting the Koran with breaks to describe the advantages of the sword and Kalishnikov rifle. The scene is based on a Taliban madrassa Pazira visited in Pakistan, with the weapons added to make a political point.
"It is this early education in the madrassa that helped keep the Taliban in control," Makhmalbaf writes, communicating via e-mail from Iran, where he is working on a new project. "They teach them at a young age to be violent; it is indoctrinated into the thinking of thousands of Afghan children." But if children have it bad, Kandahar shows that women may have it worse. Hidden under heavy hooded robes called burqas, they have their individuality stripped from them under a walking prison sentence and can only be examined by doctors through a small hole in a blanket.
The film's delirious and horrifying absurdist centerpiece comes at a Red Cross camp where two European aid workers bicker with recent land-mine victims over the dispersal of artificial limbs. One man missing a hand (likely a thief punished by the Taliban; "Do you walk on your hands?" one aid worker asks) is not deterred by the station's selection. "We only have legs," an aid worker tells him. "Well, give me some legs," he says, searching desperately for something of value he can barter. Another man, who has come to replace his wife's temporary artificial legs for a custom-made set of permanent ones, is like someone shopping for clothing at a mall. He holds the legs up to his wife's burqa to measure the length, puts her slippers on the artificial feet, and decides that this custom pair is too big and calmly proceeds to find another pair (custom-made for someone else) to take instead. The aid worker looks on in a kind of befuddled and exasperated stupor.
The gallows humor here is reminiscent of Luis Buñuel, except that the horror is all real. The crowd of amputees gathered at the station are recent victims of the thousands of land mines strewn across the country. "When we started filming in November [of 2000], these men were all healthy," Pazira says. "And in January we were told that they had been brought in for amputation, that they had lost their legs only a week before. We asked if we could cast them in the film, and they were understandably reluctant at first. But when they realized that this was something other people would see and that people would know what had happened to them, they agreed to show their wounds."
The scene ends with what has become Kandahar's most iconic moment and the only truly artificial addition to the depiction of the Red Cross camp: the sight of a helicopter dropping artificial limbs from the sky via parachute and of a horde of amputees crossing the desert in crutches to get to them. In a country where, as one character says, "Weapons are the only modern things," people frequently see their fates falling from the sky in the form of bombs or foreign aid, thus Makhmalbaf's embellishment becomes an entirely apt poetic symbol for the desperate fate of the Afghan people.
Moments like this make the film much more than an engrossing humanitarian travelogue. Early films of Makhmalbaf's have the punchy, pulpy polemics of a Samuel Fuller, and you can see this streak of mischievousness coming through in parts of Kandahar. One jaw-dropping scene occurs in the refugee camp as families are lined up for portraits so they can be identified in the future. Yet the women are covered head-to-toe in burqas, like colorful Cousin Its. Ignoring the sheer absurdity of it all, the photographer clips along from one family to another, snapping away -- "One, two, three, [click] bravo!"
As of this writing, conflict continues in Afghanistan, Israelis and Palestinians are slaughtering one another, Dick Cheney is on a trip trying to garner support for another war in Iraq, North Korea is responding angrily to a change in U.S. nuclear policy, and, far from the media glare, thousands of people continue to starve to death in Somalia. Makhmalbaf, who fought against the shah in the Islamic revolution and subsequently abandoned fundamentalism and politics for a form of cultural humanism (with some of his films banned by his own right-wing government), believes that culture can play a role in enacting change. It sure can't hurt.
In the American media climate, films like Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers are the inspiration for cable-news documentaries and magazine articles in which advertising masquerades as journalism. Meanwhile, a filmmaker like Makhmalbaf countryman Abbas Kiarostami -- a man accorded the same respect in the rest of the world that Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa once had --has never had a film receive wide release in the United States, despite the fact that understanding the enormous complexities of Iranian culture (that "axis of evil" member long hostile to the U.S., where 80 percent of the population would nonetheless like to see Western reform and the removal of the governing mullahs) would seem to be essential to America's view of the world.
In a climate like this, the scarcity of foreign films on American screens is not just something for film buffs to bemoan; it's a real cultural problem, a problem Makhmalbaf himself addresses: "Such a large and powerful country, separated from much of the world by two oceans, must take it upon itself to educate its citizens about politics, events, and cultural issues around the world. Some of this education must come from films that depict ways of life and problems in other parts of the world. How can a country operate in the global community if it does not understand the people and politics and problems of the countries it is dealing with?"
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