[Last update: 7 November 2001]

Sudden Resonance for an Iranian Film About Afghanistan

by Alan Riding

PARIS, Nov. 4 — Mohsen Makhmalbaf is a central figure in Iran's current movie wave, a prolific novelist, screenwriter and director whose films frequently earn him the wrath of Iranian censors. Outside festival and art-house circles, however, he is still little known in the West. Even at this year's Cannes film festival, his latest movie, "Kandahar," went largely unnoticed by critics on the prowl for future hits.

But now, through the accident of politics, "Kandahar," which is also the name of the Afghan city that is home to the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, is stirring enormous interest following its release in France and Italy. The film, which addresses both the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban and the accumulated misery of the Afghan people, is due for release in the United States in January.

Clearly, the film's relevance has increased between its completion in February and today. Not many weeks ago, Mr. Makhmalbaf said, a journalist asked him why he had chosen "such an unimportant subject" for his movie. Now, even though "Kandahar" deals directly with neither war nor terrorist violence, it is being snapped up by distributors around the world. After all, the director noted dryly, apart from "Rambo III," it is one of the few feature films ever set in Afghanistan.

"When I was shooting the film, I was wondering how I could say things for people who know nothing about Afghanistan," Mr. Makhmalbaf said in a telephone interview from Tehran. "I told myself: You have to give a lot of information. Forget about making a film. So before Sept. 11, people found the film full of information and perhaps a little complicated and exaggerated. But I only show a few things. If I had shown everything I saw, no one would believe me."

The movie's plot is relatively simple. Nafas, a young Afghan exiled in Canada, is trying to reach Kandahar overland from Iran to rescue her sister, who has threatened to commit suicide during the last solar eclipse of the millennium. Hidden behind a head-to-toe burka, Nafas is successively guided by a refugee family, a boy expelled from Koranic school, an African-American working as a self-taught paramedic, and a man maimed, like Nafas's sister, by a land mine.

If at times "Kandahar" resembles a documentary, it is not only because most of its "actors" are refugees living in camps in northeast Iran close to the Afghan border, where the film was shot. It is also because Nelofer Pazira, 28, who plays Nafas, is herself an Afghan whose family fled Afghanistan in 1989 and is now living in Canada. And she, too, was drawn back to the region in 1999 by a desperate letter from her closest friend who was living under the Taliban regime.

Ms. Pazira, a radio and television journalist in Ottawa, was having difficulty entering Afghanistan alone, so she asked Mr. Makhmalbaf to make a documentary of her planned voyage. Though the director could not accept at the time, a year later he contacted Ms. Pazira and proposed a fictionalized version of her story. Conveniently for the movie, she is bilingual, enabling her to communicate with the refugees in the Afghan version of Farsi and to provide information in English to audiences through the device of speaking her impressions into a tape-recorder.

The film has been well received. But because its theme is essentially grim, several critics have been troubled by the beauty of some images, not least those of multicolored burkas floating across arid landscapes. Writing in The New York Times from Cannes this spring, A. O. Scott noted that both "Kandahar" and Abbas Kiarostami's "ABC Africa" (about Ugandan orphans) "contain moments of sublime visual poetry that at once heighten and complicate their humanitarian messages."

Christophe Ayad, film critic of the left-of-center Paris daily Libération, also acknowledged "pure moments of grace," like a scene in which dozens of real-life maimed refugees rush on crutches to catch artificial limbs being parachuted by the International Red Cross. "The problem is that the message and the camera go in opposite directions," Mr. Ayad noted. "The burka is an abomination, that's understood, but it does not prevent one from thinking that it is also photogenic."

But for Mr. Makhmalbaf, 44, whose 16 movies to date include "Marriage of the Blessed," "Gabbeh" and "The Silence" as well as "The Cyclist," about a destitute Afghan refugee, his aim is unambiguous. It is, he said, to draw the attention of the world and also of Iran to the hunger and despair of those Afghan refugees (most of them Farsi- speaking Hazaras), who before Sept. 11 lived constantly under the threat of expulsion by the Tehran government.

"The authorities even tried to stop the film, saying that by law the Afghans had to return home," Mr. Makhmalbaf said, noting that the film was eventually shown for four weeks in two Tehran theaters. "I wrote to President Mohammad Khatami and told him these people were dying of hunger. If we push them home, they will die. I had so many problems with the film. I had to change locations. But my focus was humanitarian, not political."

Even before the Taliban seized power in 1996, he said, 95 percent of girls and 80 percent of boys in Afghanistan did not attend school. As refugees, their situation did not improve. "In Pakistan, they could only go to Taliban schools," Mr. Makhmalbaf went on. "In Iran, they could not go to school. Last year, we found money for 100 refugee girls to go to school. This year, we're aiming at 3,000 girls. I'm now making a documentary to show people how they can help."

The director said the terror attacks on New York and Washington followed by the bombing of Afghanistan had only made things worse. "I was shocked and deeply saddened by the events of Sept. 11, and certainly, the Taliban is the most disastrous government in the world," he said. "But bombing does not help Afghan women. We don't need reaction, but action to change the economy of Afghanistan."

Such is Mr. Makhmalbaf's indignation about the misery of Afghanistan that, since well before Sept. 11, his web site (www.makhmalbaf .com) has carried a 32-page economic, political and historical analysis of the country that he wrote after filming "Kandahar" and that is called "The Buddha Was Not Demolished in Afghanistan; He Collapsed Out of Shame." In the essay, though, he also conveys his own feeling of helplessness.

"Even now that I have finished making `Kandahar,' I have arrived at nowhere in my profession," he writes. "I don't believe that the little flame of knowledge kindled by a report or a film can illuminate the deep ocean of human ignorance."

"Why on earth did I make that film or write this note?" he adds. "I don't know, but as Pascal put it: `The heart has reasons of which the mind is unware.' "

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