It’s rare when cinema and current events collide. The last memorable parallel occurred in 1979, when “The China Syndrome” opened within days of the Three Mile Island accident. Now comes “Kandahar,” a timely film that was shot before the September 11 attack on America, but is just now making its way to theaters.

Before September 11, Kandahar was just another exotic name on a world map. Since then, anyone who has watched the news is not only familiar with the small Afghanistan city, but is also familiar with the horrendous images of poverty, war, and terrorism that plague the region.

Watching the real life horrors on television has diluted the power of “Kandahar,” the latest film from Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Filled with good intentions and an occasional sense of whimsy, “Kandahar” is ultimately an exercise in tedium. Despite using actual locals and locations (the Iranian border standing in for Afghanistan), Makhmalbaf’s film feels artificial. Not once do we feel the urgency of the situation.

“Kandahar” has also recently been in the news. One of the films performers, Hassan Tantai,, has been exposed as David Belfield, an American-born supporter of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime, and is the main suspect in the murder of a Bethesda, Maryland man who was a fierce critic of the Ayatollah. Belfield fled to Iran, where he hid under several names, including Tantai.

Makhmalbaf defends his casting decision claiming that he never asks his performers about their private lives. Too bad, because Belfield’s life would have made a much better film than “Kandahar,” which is repetitious to the point of being annoying. I assume the director keeps his distance from his performer’s personal lives because he wants to keep their characters as real and raw as possible.

He succeeds, because there isn’t one polished performance in “Kandahar.”. Instead of drawing us into their world, the performers repel us with their emotionless acting. They just recite the lines, and even then most of the dialogue feels made up on the spot. Makhmalbaf allows scenes to go on forever, letting his performers repeat the same bits of dialogue over and over again. They don’t just make a point, they drill it into the hard sand.

Nelofer Pazira, an Afghani refugee who fled to Canada with her parents and later became a journalist, basically plays a thinly veiled version of herself. As Nafas, Pazira returns to Afghanistan after receiving a letter from her sister, who was left behind. Having lost her legs to a land mine, the sister claims that she will commit suicide during the last eclipse of the Millennium. With just days left, Pazira must make it to the Iranian border and then across the rugged, desolate desert of Afghanistan, still under Taliban rule.

After being dropped off at the border by a Red Cross helicopter, Pazira must rely on a handful of locals to help her complete her journey. During the first leg of her journey she pretends to be the fourth wife of an Afghanistan man, but after they’re robbed and left abandoned, Pazira finds herself on her own.

Pazira’s next escort is a young boy who has been expelled from school, an opportunist named Khak (Sadou Teymouri) who would rather fleece Pazira than help her. Khak leads Pazira to a small village where she meets doctor Tabib Sahid (Tantai), who pretends to be Islamic by gluing on a fake beard and adopting the local colloquialisms. Sahid agrees to help her on her journey, taking Pazira to a Red Cross facility in the middle of the desert.

It’s here where “Kandahar” shows any true signs of reality, depicting the horrors of an on-going war with absolute conviction. It’s heartbreaking watching row upon row of maimed men waiting patiently for whatever relief they can get for their lost limbs, only to learn that artificial legs can take up to a year to arrive. Victim after victim describe how they lost their limbs, and for a fleeting moment “Kandahar” becomes about something than about someone.

Just when director Makhmalbaf starts to hit his stride, he falls back on the familiar, once again allowing his performers to ramble on until they become unwelcome. Red Cross workers question a man trying to scam a pair of artificial legs (for his mother, he tells them), and instead of confronting the man about his dishonesty, the characters just rehash the same argument.

Except for Nafas, the men do all of the talking, which is a real shame since the filmmakers obviously miss a golden opportunity to tell the story from the perspective of the more oppressed women. Except for an occasional glance under their colorful burkas, the women have no identity. That leaves Pazira with the herculean task of balancing the bias, and while she’s quite lovely to look at, she lacks the emotional ballast needed to keep the film afloat.

“Kandahar” is supposed to be about suppression, and even though the director touches down on the occasional hot spot, the film never detonates. It just smolders like a wet towel in a campfire. Makhmalbaf fails to create any genuine suspense or danger. Now that we’ve seen the truth on the news, almost everything in “Kandahar” feels superficial. We’re supposed to feel sympathy and sorrow for the characters, but since they never become real to us it’s difficult to invest such emotion.

Nafas is desperate to reach her sister, but since we never meet her, or even learn why she was left behind in the first place, it’s hard to care. When Khak is expelled from school, his mother pleads with the teacher to reinstate him because she cannot afford to feed him. It’s sad, but not heart tugging.

Behind the camera, Makhmalbaf captures some beautiful images, but they’re not enough to redeem the film. His choice of music is extremely obnoxious, perhaps on purpose. It’s the sort of soundtrack I would buy and then throw away to make sure that there was one less copy in circulation.

A much better film about oppression is “The Day I Became a Woman,” a lovely trilogy of stories co-written by Makhmalbaf and directed by his wife Marzieh Meshkini. In that film not only do we get to know the characters, but care about them. The only thing I cared about with “Kandahar” was when it was going to end.


Woman’s journey home to Kandahar lacks direction


Nelofer Pazira, Hassan Tantai, Sadou Teymouri. Directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. 80 Minutes. Not Rated.


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