When the Iranian filmmaker Mohesen Makhmalbaf wrote and directed a movie about a Afghanistan-born Canadian woman who tries to save her sister from the Taliban, he could not have known that the film would open at a time when its title would be splashed across front page headlines in bold face fonts. But while it's safe to say that the current crisis created intense interest in "Kandahar," this austere and fascinating movie would have been welcome at any time.
The story of "Kandahar" is harrowing - Nafas (Nelofer Pazira) is on a quest to make it to the Taliban stronghold where her sister, maimed by a landmine, is set on committing suicide. During her perilous journey through the desert, she has to don the traditional full-body covering of the burkha and find male companions since it is illegal for a woman to travel alone. Some of the more bizarre episodes include a hard-to-believe medical examination conducted through an interpreter, a burkha, and a curtain, as well as a crutch race after air-dropped artificial legs that is too strange for words and, at the same time, much too real for comfort.
The intersections of reality and fiction are many -- the film is a fiction based on a real story, acted by amateurs (and, in case of Nelofer Pazira, by the real person on whose experiences the fictional story is based). The result is much more real than any of the news you see on TV.
Filming on the Iran-Afghanistan border, Makhmalbaf had to rely on amateur actors and improvised dialogue. Some parts of "Kandahar" feel plodding and the exposition heavy-handed, scenes and characters come and go haphazardly, but somehow the fragmented feel only adds to the power of the film. The unreal scenery, the random encounters with bandits and Americans-turned-radicals (prefiguring John Walker), the deadly dolls and brightly colored burkhas which turn women into a species of monster make this film closer to David Lynch's "Dune" or the "Star Wars" desert world Tatooine than anything you would seriously expect to happen on this planet. I would have recommended "Kandahar" at any time; current events make it a must-see film.
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