The Prince of Nothingwood Review
“Hollywood. Bollywood. Nothingwood. Afghan cinema is Nothingwood because there is no money.” So says Salim Shaheen, a one-man filmmaking machine from Afghanistan. Given its recent history, the country is not a place where you’d expect to find one of the world’s most prolific filmmakers plying his trade. French journalist Sonia Kronlund’s documentary follows the maverick director as he is working on three films simultaneously, taking him into the region of 110 features and counting. His movies are made come hell or high water (it is usually a combination of both) while the bombs continue to drop and the country fights to revive itself.
Together with his close friends Shaheen jumps into a car with camera in tow and heads out to make his rough cut, Bollywood inspired films. His latest film is a semi-autobiographical tale recalling how he fell in love with cinema as a child, through to his time spent in the army as a General and beyond. But the B-movie aesthetic means little to the thousands of fans who see his films either on DVD or through the national TV channels. To the people he’s a hero who gives them a chance to escape their grim reality for 90 minutes, watching him sing, dance and fight his way across the screen. Kronlund even manages to interview an ex-Taliban fighter who says Shaheen’s films were hugely popular in his unit, despite the blanket ban on DVDs and the like.
Kronlund stays by his side throughout, watching him pitch-up in a number of remote locations, aided by his son who himself switches between cameraman and actor, before the scene is wrapped in a take or two before switfly moving on. Kronlund occasionally ventures into view quietly asking Shaheen questions about his films and personal life, along with the role of women in his films (one extremely strict father watches his teenage daughter like a hawk during filming) and the energetic auteur carefully picks and chooses when or how he answers each one. He’s a law unto himself and throughout the film he swings from one extreme to another, either milking applause from locals or absolutely losing his mind at a member of his crew for not doing their job properly.
The supporting cast remain equally as entertaining, especially his personal assistant Qurban Ali. Married with six children, he revels in cross-dressing and displaying his femininity and even plays Shaheen’s mother in the autobiographical story. You wouldn’t imagine his overt campness would go down well with the locals yet these roles allow him to express himself in way he feels comfortable, and the audience accept his personality through that prism. The Prince of Nothingwood is filled with these small, inspirational moments that act as a reflection of the freedom cinema provides, in both a literal and philosophical manner. Salim Shaheen’s films may not be receiving a Palme d'Or nomination anytime soon, but through his sheer passion and commitment to making films his work transcends mere entertainment and actually serve to make a difference.