’Kandahar’ merely glances at Afghan life

Images Cinema has jumped on the Afghanistan bandwagon with “Kandahar,” a film set two years ago in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and released late last year to overwhelming media attention. However much “Kandahar” might be praised for its sociological impulse, the film is remarkably didactic and one-sided, as well as badly written, structured and acted. “Kandahar,” directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is based on the true story of Nelofer Pazira, who also appears in the film as the main character. The need for stories of Afghanistan may outweigh the dramatic and artistic limitation of the film, but spectators should be warned to proceed with caution. “Kandahar” plays through April 18 at Images.

The story follows an Afghan journalist named Nafas (acted by Pazira), who is attending school in Canada. Her sister, captured by the Taliban and held in the capital city of Kandahar, writes to Nafas explaining her intent to commit suicide in a short time. The film is the story of Nafas’ race to reach her sister in time to save her from this fate.

Nafas arrives in Iran, where she joins an Afghanistan family attempting to reenter the country, posing as a wife. To do this, Nafas must become used to wearing the burqa – a cloak that covers the face of a woman – at all times. She is told by the man posing as her husband that wearing the burqa is linked with his honor, as it would shame him for another man to see the face of his wife.

Nafas is soon deserted by the Afghan family in a remarkable scene where the man prays to and praises God while his wife and children are robbed. She finds a young boy named Khak, recently expelled from school, to serve as her guide to Kandahar. Along her way, Nafas encounters an American doctor working in Afghanistan in disguise and a Red Cross facility dealing with many men who have lost limbs to mines.

A major difficulty of the film is the main character, who might have been more aptly played by an actress than by the woman who lived this story. Her character’s constant use of a tape recorder is a thinly veiled narrative device that made her seem like a suspicious tourist while she was ostensibly trying to fit in with the Afghans. Pazira shows a total lack of emotional range, and she is extremely unconvincing as she whines about her need to get to Kandahar to person after person. Inconsistencies in the character are written into the script as well: she seems to be a tough journalist, but is also terrified at seeing a skeleton, showing an unusual sensitivity.

Certain scenes suffered from redundancy, revealing inherent problems in the script. One such scene had an Afghan man telling a Red Cross worker over and over that a pair of artificial legs wouldn’t work for his wife. The poignancy of this vignette aside, it could have been tightened considerably, and the understanding of the audience might have been taken for granted. Otherwise, many unrealistic conversations forced the characters to speak their subtext and exposition in a didactic manner, betraying the filmmakers’ agenda to show the treatment of women in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the dialogue in English was generally stilted and unrealistic, as if it were all badly translated.

At times, the redundancy and anti-dramatic style of scenes approached a documentary style. We know that “Kandahar” is not meant to be a documentary, as the poor writing shows, but the lack of emotion in the characters and lack of drama in the story fail to engage the audience. Furthermore, the story is incomplete, with an unsatisfying ending that caused many audience members to ask, “Is that it?” The story of Nafas and her sister was never adequately resolved by any means.

The fact that “Kandahar” contains some amazing images cannot be denied. One of these images is of a mob of men who have lost legs to landmines running across the desert plain on crutches. The men are running toward artificial legs parachuting toward the ground. The entire sequence is incredibly rich, beautifully filmed and speaks volumes about the Afghan situation.

Another fascinating scene takes place in a school where children are praying and bowing as they study to be “mullas,” or warriors. Their teacher stops the studying to quiz the students on the use of the saber and semi-automatic weapons, as well as their recitation of the Qur’an. In scenes such as these, children show that they are the best and most believable actors in this film.

The film missed a great opportunity to continue this interrogation of how spirituality and violence intermesh in Afghanistan in the character of the American physician in Kandahar. The doctor tells Nafas that he came to Afghanistan to “find God,” but he did so only by fighting for Afghanistan’s freedom against Russia. This is the concept for an extremely interesting character who is never fleshed out by the thin script.

As a sociological study of Afghanistan’s situation over the last few years, the film offers an interesting perspective on Afghan life. The scene in the school, the image of the men on crutches and a scene where the doctor examines Afghan women though a hole in a sheet are wonderful as vignettes. However, between these wonderful moments, the story repeatedly and consistently falls flat. As an independent art film, “Kandahar” is severely lacking. However, if “Kandahar” is all we have to make Afghanistan accessible and even beautiful in its pain, then its place at Images might be well earned.