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Sometimes a movie’s subject can be so relevant and interesting that the quality of the filmmaking need not be outstanding. Such is the case with Kandahar, a tour of life under the Taliban.

The Maguffin

Nafas in the deserts of AfghanistanOur heroine Nafas is played by non-actress Nelofer Pazira, on whose life the story is loosely based. Both the actress and her character were born in Afghanistan, and both emigrated to Canada. Now Nafas has returned, traveling alone from the Iranian border to Kandahar. She’s off to see her sister, whose life has become so miserable that she has threatened to kill herself at the solar eclipse in three days.

Nafas’ journey is the Maguffin — the plot device — which allows director Moshen Makhmalbaf to take us on a tour of life under the Taliban. You might say Kandahar is a road movie, except there’s not much in way of roads. And instead of vintage cars, it’s travel by foot, tuk-tuk, or horse-drawn cart.

A quick survey of the terrain by Red Cross helicopter gives Nafas a bird’s eye view of the desolate landscape she will have to cross on the ground. The helicopter drops a supply of artificial limbs on parachutes, and a mob of men on crutches runs for the landing zone. It’s a surreal, almost funny sight.

Encounters

On the ground, her first encounter is with a family traveling to Afghanistan. Nafas pays them a hundred dollars to take her in their tiny three-wheel truck. She must pose as the man’s fourth wife and stay under her silver embroidered burqa at all times. Before they leave, an Iranian woman teaches the 5- and 6- year old girls not to pick up any toys, because they could be mined.

The travel is dusty, slow, and unpleasant. Before long, they are robbed at knifepoint by highway bandits, and the family decides to go back to Iran, leaving Nafas to continue on her own.

She makes it to a little settlement, where, if anyone is going toward Kandahar, no one will take her. A young boy, Khak (Sadou Teymouri), has just been kicked out of religious school, so he agrees to take the lady with turquoise eyes. For how much? “50,000 Afghanis,” (about $1) he demands. When she says she only has dollars, he asks for 50,000 of those.

Khak leads Nafas through the desert on foot. The beautiful cinematography captures the rugged, barren, and oppressive landscape. The handheld camera looks not so much stylistic as cheap. Nafas and Khak drink water from a muddy well, which makes her sick and brings them to their next encounter.

As editor, Makhmalbaf’s style is occasionally confusing. Some scenes seem to be out of place. They introduce new characters and scenarios with no seeming relevance to the central story. Twice I wondered if Kandahar would be a series of short stories instead of one feature-length film. But always, Makhmalbaf brings us back to Nafas and her journey to Kandahar.

Calling Dr. Sahid

Just when you think life in Afghanistan can’t get any stranger, we see a male doctor asking his patient some basic questions — how is your appetite, do you have diarrhea, etc. His patient, a woman, is not in the same room. The doctor must speak to the woman’s young daughter, who relays the information. And when he needs to look into her mouth, she opens wide in front of a small hole cut in a sheet separating doctor from patient.

Next in line, Nafas finds that the doctor speaks English. He is in fact an American in Afghanistan in search of God. He can’t take Nafas to Kandahar, but he can get her to the Red Cross camp she flew over in the helicopter, and from there she can get a ride.

Legs from Heaven

The doctors in the camp are women in Western garb. Their lack of Islamic coverings is a visual surprise. At this camp, men with missing legs await a handout from the relief organization. A possible thief (he’s lost his hand) harasses the relief workers, constantly begging them for artificial legs. He’s got two perfectly good legs, but he wants a pair “for my mother,” according to one of his many stories.

These doctors have very few resources to help so many in need. They don’t even have enough help to keep away the riff-raff. They are clearly overwhelmed. And instead of being appreciated for the help they do give, they are made to feel bad for not giving better help. The entire situation is depressing.

Another parachute drop of limbs comes, just as surreal, but no longer funny. Now it’s dark and tragic. It reveals just how desperate the situation is; that artificial limbs are at such a premium and so scarce, that even these miraculous legs from Heaven won’t come close to helping alleviate the suffering in Afghanistan. Reinforced by the repetition, the image is sure to haunt your thoughts.

Cheap Style

My first impression of Kandahar was less than favorable. The production values are very low. Worst of all is the film’s sound mix. There are subtitles for about half of the film, but when the characters speak in English it becomes apparent that the sound is very uneven. Some dialogue is almost inaudibly quiet, some is drowned out by background noise. Unfortunately, some very important, key lines (like first and last lines) were obscured by a less-than-optimal sound mix.

The picture, too, is often uneven. Again, the handheld camera doesn’t appear to have been a stylistic decision, but an economic one. And yet, in spite of a very jumpy camera, the first helicopter shot is amazing. Video news footage on your television just can’t convey the rusty barrenness of the Afghan landscape like 35mm film projected on a big screen. (It’s actually the Iranian mountains just outside of the Afghanistan border).

Timing is Everything

In spite of some flaws that would spoil a lesser film, Kandahar stands out as a must-see. Maybe Kandahar is not as rich in information as a documentary would be, but it is just as interesting for its dramatization. The subject matter is on everyone’s mind, and Makhmalbaf only scratches the surface. His few vignettes reveal a deeply moving human situation calling for everyday heroics. Life in Afghanistan is a lode of story ideas, ready to be mined by future screenwriters and novelists.

In the meantime, go see Kandahar.