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SAFAR E GHANDEHAR (KANDAHAR) (director/writer/editor: Mohsen Makhmalbaf; cinematographer: Ebraham Ghafouri; music: Mohamad Reza Darvishi; cast: Nelofer Pazira (Nafas), Hassan Tantai (Tabib Sahid), Sadou Teymouri (Khak), Hoyatala Hakimi (Hayat); Runtime: 85; Avatar Films; 2001-Iran)
“It’s a film that is sometimes naive and at other times unsettling, but it has a rawness and power that sticks in your throat.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A bleak but at times sublimely comical look at Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban before the September 11 attack on the WTC. It was filmed before that date under the title: “The Sun Behind The Moon,” but its name was changed to obviously cash in on the then hot spot in the world. Kandahar was filmed in Iran in the area by the Afghanistan border. It’s directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s foremost filmmakers, whose purpose is to take us under the burka and see what a woman who is forced to wear such a veil sees of her surroundings. The dialogue is mostly in English and that somehow feels right.

The road to Kandahar is lined with landmines, bandits and the religious police of the Taliban. The director lyrically captures the oppressive climate in the Taliban controlled territories in a series of memorable artistic portraits. Makhmalbaf seems to be more interested in doing that then in telling a story with a payoff. And by his using a cast of all nonprofessional actors, the film seems like it could be a documentary. But, Makhmalbaf, nevertheless, seems unperturbed by their lack of skill in front of the camera, as he is more interested in drawing out from them a genuine performance. The result is a convincingly emotional and haunting film that is stacked with metaphors and forceful visual insights, but lacks dramatic gravitas. Also, one comes away uncertain of who the director is angry at for all the suffering in Afghanistan, but one thing is for certain — the country is a backward place of horrors. Iran looks like a paradise in comparison.

An Afghan journalist now in exile and living in Canada, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira, in real life Ms. Pazira, who grew up in Kabul, is a Canadian television journalist), who left Afghanistan with her family years ago after leaving her sister behind, receives a troubling letter from her sister who lost both legs after stepping on a land mine. She says that she plans to commit suicide during the first eclipse of the twenty-first century, which is in three days. The eclipse is used as a poetic symbol for women living behind the veil, as the film begins and ends with the shot of the eclipse.

Nafas is so moved by this letter that she will try to reach her sister in time and try to save her by taking her out of the country. She slips into Afghanistan crossing the Iranian border by posing as the fourth wife of an Afghani refugee heading back to Kandahar, after he is paid for this deceit. When the large family is robbed at knife point by bandits, they decide their country is not safe and head back toward an Iranian refugee camp. Still determined to go on, Nafas hooks up with a greedy and unreliable young religious student, Khak, who was thrown out of school because he can’t correctly sing the verses in the Koran. Taken sick by bad drinking water from a well located in the grim sun-drenched desert, she’s taken to an American black Muslim lay doctor, Sahid (Hassan Tantai, in real life he allegedly assassinated a member of the Shah’s secret police in Washington, D. C., and has since lived in Iran and then settled in Afghanistan after he came here to fight the Russians). He’s not really a doctor but is posing as one, as he hoped to find God in Afghanistan but is now disillusioned. He feels the people are suffering because of poverty and that no one in the world cares about them. Because of the absurd religious fundamental beliefs the country is forced to practice, he must treat his women patients while they stand on the other side of a curtain and talk through a hole the size of their mouth. He also must paste on a false beard because he can’t grow one.

When the doctor finds out the journalist’s mission he decides to take her part of the way in his wagon, as he tells Nafas to get rid of the boy guide because he’s untrustworthy. The doctor leaves her at a Red Cross station in the film’s most striking image, as legless men on crutches come there for prosthetic limbs. While waiting as long as one year for their artificial legs the men are angry, hurting, and frustrated, so when they spot a helicopter overhead and the artificial legs come parachuting down on the desert they race to get them on their crutches. It highlights the absurdity of the human condition in this forsaken country.

The doctor, who has fallen in love with Nafas, arranges through a money deal to get an unreliable one-armed Afghani to take her there as they both pose as female members of a wedding party — while he also dons a burka. The film ends as they are stopped by the religious police and held separately for questioning, as it becomes any one’s guess if she made it through or not.

Nafas’ fictionalized story poses the rhetorical question: Does any country care enough to reach Afghanistan in time to save it? Though the acting is stiff and the dialogue is less than scintillating, the power in the film is in its visual poetry. It paints a picture of the ambiguity of the country and leaves us stark questions to ponder. That this country needs help goes without question, but can it be helped is a question that will linger long after seeing Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s probing film. It’s a film that is sometimes naive and at other times unsettling, but it has a rawness and power that sticks in your throat.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”