“I am glad you don’t know the truth, that in Afghanistan these past twenty years, one human being has died every five minutes from mines, from war, famine or drought.”
An Iranian film dramatizing the real-life attempted journey into Afghanistan of a young Afghan-Canadian woman, Nelofer Pazira, trying to find her childhood friend living in Kabul was shot in 2000 mainly in the vicinity of the Iranian/Afghani border village of Niatak. The film (entitled Kandahar since it substituted that city — the spiritual centre of Afghanistan — for Kabul in its story) debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2001 where it won the Ecumenical Jury Prize. It later was entered in the Toronto Film Festival where it was thrust into the forefront because of its topicality when the WTC terrorist attacks occurred partway through that Festival. Kandahar has now come to DVD courtesy of Seville Pictures.
A young Afghan woman named Nafas, living in Canada where her family had found refuge after fleeing Afghanistan, receives a letter from her sister who still resides in Kandahar. Her sister is depressed over the oppressive conditions under which women must live in Afghanistan and has decided to end her life just before the last eclipse of the sun in the twentieth century. Desperate to save her sister, Nafas manages to travel from Canada to the border of Iran and Afghanistan, but with only three days before the eclipse, she must find a way to get to Kandahar through a dangerous countryside that is rife with poverty, sickness, roving robbers, and patrols of religious police.
Some films seem even better than they are by virtue of circumstance whether happy or not. Such a film is Kandahar. Obviously, the terrorist acts of 9/11 have caused a resonance in the film’s topic that would otherwise not exist. Due to the events in New York, there was (and continues to be) an intense desire to understand more about the nature of the Taliban, Afghanistan, Islam, and the terrorists that are products of this background. Kandahar certainly provides plenty of insight into that culture, specifically in terms of its impact on the lot of its women. Based on the events in the life of an Afghan woman who had fled Kabul as a child with her family for a future in Canada and then tried to return to seek a childhood friend, Kandahar provides a unique portrait of life as it then existed in Afghanistan under the Taliban. This is a very fine film experience indeed, worthy of your time and money. It is not quite the perfect four-star experience that some reviewers would have you believe, but it’s not far off it.
The film’s most indelible impression comes from its images. The cinematography in the film is outstanding and the scenes it depicts are simply unforgettable. From the intense splashes of the colour in people’s clothing in contrast with the grays and browns of the landscape, to the sight of artificial limbs being dropped by parachute to a Red Cross aid station in the desert where men are desperately waiting for them, to the rocking bodies of young boys dressed in white reciting the Koran pausing only to intone the merits of sabers and kalishnakovs at the request of their teacher, to a doctor who communicates with and examines his female patients through a hole in a hanging blanket separating him from them, this is a picture of a world foreign to the vast majority of westerners.
The restrictive life of women (known as “black heads” due to the lack of individuality accorded them) is starkly documented. We see young girls who are returning to Afghanistan being told that their schooling is now over since no schooling for women is not allowed in that country. Their last lesson concerns the need to avoid all dolls since they may conceal explosives designed to maim and kill. Total body coverage including wearing the burkha is mandatory in public for all women and the effect of looking through the veil-like opening in the burkha seems akin to the multifaceted effect that an insect’s vision has. The loss of identity that women must suffer extends to being forbidden to work outside the home or even to go outside without being accompanied by a male family member.
From what I have described so far, one might get the impression that Kandahar is a documentary film. It is not, however, and it is in that respect that the film has its few difficulties. For example, none of the players in the story have any acting experience and that is occasionally painfully obvious on screen. Some of the local people that appear seem natural, but many do not. Unfortunately, the film’s principal player, Nelofer Pazira, shares this lack of ease on the screen. The result is a distraction that at times tends to remove us mentally from the film experience. The film’s narrative is also somewhat problematic, particularly in its ending — true-to-life in comparison to the ending of the story on which it was based, but jarringly abrupt nonetheless.
Still, when one realizes the difficulties involved in the film’s shooting — in getting the necessary and seemingly endless authorizations, in gaining the trust and confidence of the local people, in having to deal with extremely primitive conditions compared to what the crew (from Tehran) was used to — the effects that the film’s director Mohsen Makhmalbaf has managed to achieve are impressive. Makhmalbaf is a veteran Iranian director with a fine filmography to his credit, including Gabbeh (1996) and The Silence (1998). One of his earlier films — The Cyclist (1987) — had an Afghani connection to its story. In Kandahar, he has achieved an artistic success that provides a mosaic of simple real-like experiences that significantly further our understanding of the extreme difficulties of existence in Afghanistan. That his presentation is somewhat lacking from a narrative point of view and in its communication by the actors does not detract from its power to move and to educate.
Seville Pictures has chosen Kandahar as the first entry in its new line of DVD presentations known as the Seville Signature Collection. If this first release is any indication, future entries will be worth looking forward to. We are provided with a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that is stunning to behold. The image is sharp and clear with natural colours (including vibrant clothing colour in comparison to the surrounding land’s grays and browns) and excellent shadow detail. This is a transfer that stands comparison with the best out there. Other than one or two instances of minor edge effects and a trace of noise in some shots of the sky, I could detect nothing with which to find fault. Very well done!
The disc provides a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track that is consistent with the film’s original presentation. The film is a dialogue-driven affair with some background music and in no way suffers from the lack of a more elaborate sound mix. The DVD delivers a mixture of English and Farsi with optional subtitles in either English or French. The English dialogue is clearly understandable. The Farsi sounded a bit muddy to me at times, but that may be a reflection of local dialects. Certainly I have no knowledge of the language to allow an authoritative judgment.
The disc’s package of supplementary features is highlighted by an audio commentary by Nelofer Pazira. She talks non-stop throughout the film and provides a wealth of information on Afghanistan as well as plenty of detail on the film’s background and production methods and problems. This is a very valuable complement to the film itself. There is a documentary called “Lifting the Veil” (just under 20 minutes in length) that focuses on Nelofer Pazira and provides good background information on her family’s escape from Afghanistan, her subsequent upbringing in Canada, how the film came about, and its subsequent impact on her life. The piece was originally shown as a segment of the Canadian television newsmagazine program “W5” on the CTV network. An extensive stills gallery, the international theatrical trailer, biographies/filmographies for Nelofer Pazira and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a booklet featuring an interview with the director and an essay by Pazira, and trailers for three other Seville DVD releases round out the disc.
Kandahar, if not the perfect film that some would have you believe, is still an experience to savour for its artistic success and its ability to shed light on an otherwise poorly understood subject. Seville Pictures’s very fine DVD transfer, the first release in its new Signature Collection, allows the film’s merits to shine clearly and its supplementary content adds much to our appreciation of the film and its background. The DVD is a Canadian release available elsewhere through Canadian on-line retailers. Highly recommended.