When Pauline Kael wrote her notorious review of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, she opened by challenging the notion that a film’s subject should affect overall critical appreciation - quite rightly, in my view: no matter how noble a film’s motives (and Shoah’s are about as high-minded as they come), this shouldn’t preclude criticism of the less successful elements.
And Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar presents a similar challenge - at its premiere at Cannes in May, it was hailed as being a rare example of a genuinely courageous and politically committed film at a time when escapism ruled the roost. By the time it opened in Britain in November, it had suddenly become the most important film of the year, seemingly torn from current headlines as the world’s attention focused on Afghanistan - George W Bush apparently requested a personal screening, and he wasn’t previously known for his interest in Iranian cinema (to put it mildly). And now, just over a month later, its time would on the face of it appear to have come and gone, as one of the world’s nastiest and most fanatical regimes - never mentioned by name in the film, but whose agents are constantly lurking around the corner - has collapsed with greater rapidity than anyone predicted.
So given that a whole mythology has already sprung up about the film, it’s important from the outset to establish what you won’t get from it. Despite the use of non-professional actors and a heavy reliance on improvisation, it’s not any kind of documentary. Despite being based on a true story (and starring the author of that true story, who’s effectively playing herself), it owes as much to Buñuel and Magritte as it does to Ken Loach - as anyone who’s seen any of Makhmalbaf’s other films (I’d seen Gabbeh, his rapturous cine-poem about itinerant carpet-weavers) will know, he’s more than capable of turning the most outwardly banal ideas into wild fantasy, and the most memorable images of Kandahar fall squarely into that camp – most notably the already legendary shot of a gaggle of limbless beggars on crutches hopping over the desert to catch a pair of prosthetic legs descending by parachute as part of a humanitarian aid package.
Similar sequences abound in the film – the running gag about the United Nations flag offering protection against bandits, which of course fails miserably when put to the test; the boys’ school where the only subjects on the curriculum seem to be the Koran and the Kalashnikov; a medical examination where for religious reasons male doctors can only examine female patients through a small hole in a sheet stretched between them, with the patient’s son acting as verbal go-between; the doctor’s false beard as a symbolic male version of the burka; a man haggling with Red Cross workers for a pair of false legs despite the fact that his own are intact (“just in case”); the heartbreaking yet strangely hilarious scene of a man trying to find prosthetic limbs that fit his wife’s shoes – and above all, countless shots of Afghan women (and some disguised men) swathed from head to foot in the all-enveloping burka, whose gaudy colours contrast both with the bleached-out desert and the bleakness of their situation.
Moments like these see Kandahar at its strongest, which is just as well as you otherwise have to make huge allowances for a more than somewhat disjointed narrative (essentially, it’s a road movie about an Afghan-born Canadian returning to her native country to try to get to Kandahar to talk her sister out of threatened suicide, but as the film progresses it’s clear that this is merely a convenient thread on which to hang a series of almost irrelevant set-pieces), amateur performances (many of the cast had not only never appeared in a film, they’d never even seen one), stilted dialogue (a surprising amount is in English, but it’s clearly not the first language of either Makhmalbaf or much of his cast) and rough and ready production values.
To be fair, it was shot on a tiny budget with an entirely non-professional cast under extremely difficult conditions, and it’s certainly arguable that its caught-on-the-wing feel adds a degree of apparent ‘authenticity’ to the film’s content, even though none of it was actually shot in Afghanistan (though Makhmalbaf did undertake an illegal reconnaissance mission there before shooting commenced) – but it’s a shambolic and disjointed piece of work compared not just with Makhmalbaf’s own previous films but also his daughter Samira’s not dissimilar Blackboards, a film also set amongst nomadic desert communities struggling for survival but which is far more coherent both dramatically and philosophically.
But for all its flaws, Kandahar is still compulsory viewing. It’s not just the subject that compels attention but the fact that it’s an Iranian rather than a Western response to it – especially ironic, since Iran was the West’s great Muslim bogeyman until very recently. And for all the overly declamatory acting, it’s impossible not to be affected by scenes played out by genuine victims of Afghan landmines or Taliban ‘justice’, or the eye-opening insight, however sketchy, into life in a country that at times appears so alien that it’s hard to believe it exists on the same planet and in the same century.
And lest it seem as though recent events have rendered the film dated or irrelevant, as hinted above, nothing could be further from the truth. Significantly, the Taliban are never mentioned by name, and with good reason, as Makhmalbaf prefers to focus on elements of everyday life in Afghanistan – grinding poverty, the constant risk of violence from the authorities, bandits or landmines, the mutual hatred between warring tribes (most eloquently described in the doctor’s speech), and the treatment of women as an inferior species. Although they get conveniently scapegoated by Western media (and not without some justification), none of this was invented by the Taliban, and their departure has done little to improve matters – unsurprisingly, as Afghanistan’s problems are too big for a few American bombs to solve. If nothing else, Kandahar opens your eyes and your mind – and is unmissable on that score alone.