In 1998 an Afghan-reared Canadian journalist named Nelofer Pazira attempted to slip across the Iranian border into her native land. She was trying to reach the city of Kandahar before an old school friend, depressed by the rigors of Taliban repression, made good on a suicide threat.
This much of Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's lovely and terrifying movie Kandahar is true. Indeed, Pazira, 28, plays Nafas, the character she inspired--though in the film it is a sister, not a friend, she seeks to save--and the year is 1999, just before the millennium new year. In real life, Pazira only briefly penetrated Afghanistan's border. In the film, her character, shrouded in a burka and taking notes on a hidden tape recorder, is a brave, lonely figure constantly menaced by a bleak land and the day-to-day anarchy of the life she finds there.
The Afghanistan shown here is a place where the Red Cross grotesquely air-drops replacement legs for the thousands whose limbs have been lost to land mines, and would-be recipients argue vehemently about their fit; a place where, when Nafas becomes ill, the local healer--who turns out, strangely, to be a black American--can examine her only by peering through an eyehole cut in a blanket; a place where one of her guides is an angry, untrustworthy child who has been expelled from an Islamic school whose only text is the Koran.
The sequence in that school is, in some ways, the film's most chilling: young boys singsonging ancient religious verse, sternly criticized for incorrect tonalities while learning nothing of the actual world they will inherit. But the whole movie, made well before Afghanistan achieved its current place in the world's consciousness and at obvious risk along a smuggling route, traffics in ironies of this frightening kind. The distressing portrait that emerges is of a handsome people whose kindly instincts have been subverted by fear, corruption and the desperate struggle to survive.
This is most poignantly symbolized by a passage in which Nafas and her last guide, an angry, erratic older man, join an all-female party heading across the sands to a wedding. Even the man disguises himself in a burka, and the pictures of this group shrouded in costumes of many colors (Ebrahim Ghafouri's photography is the year's best) are strikingly beautiful. Yet we are also made aware of how their movements are restricted by their clothes, how they must struggle just to see and breathe. There can be no more powerful image of the sexism of theocratic tyranny (beauty accidentally achieved by mindless oppression) than the one these shots force upon us.
We do not see what becomes of Nafas or the woman she wanted to rescue. What we get instead is a movie that is at once primitive and sophisticated, a near documentary that tells us much about harsh current reality, yet also often achieves moments of something akin to aesthetic bliss.
--By Richard Schickel