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Monday, 19 November, 2001, 13:35 GMT
Kandahar: The movie
The film is based on a true story
By BBC News Online's Kate Goldberg

The film Kandahar serves as a timely memorial to the brutality of the Taleban regime, and its release comes as the world's attention is focused on the town after which it is named.

One day the world will see your problems and come to your aid

The acclaimed Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, described Afghanistan as "a country without images".

Under the Taleban there has been no cinema, no television, photography was banned, painting was considered "impure", and books were burnt.

Bread sellers in Afghanistan
Makhmalbaf is very well known in his native Iran
Yet, in one of his most polemical films to date, Makhmalbaf secretly entered the country and made one of the very few films ever to have been set inside Afghanistan.

Watching a film about a country in which films are banned lets the viewer share the thrill of defying the censor.

But it is given added edge by the knowledge that the Taleban regime is collapsing in real life as the movie unfolds.

At the beginning of the film one of the characters tells a crowd of Afghan refugees that "one day the world will see your problems and come to your aid".

But when the film was made, few people would have been able to find Kandahar on a map. The world had turned its back on Afghanistan.

Beneath the veil

The film tells the story of an Afghan-Canadian journalist, Nafas, who returns to Kandahar to rescue her sister who is so depressed that she has threatened to kill herself before the last solar eclipse of the 20th century.

As she enters Afghanistan, Nafas is told she must wear a burqa - the all-encompassing veil - to protect the honour of her male escort.

Women were also made to wear the veil before the Taleban

It becomes a symbol of the stifling oppression of women - the most invisible group of people in this "country without images" - and at the same time their defiance of this oppression.

Her veil is not one of the now familiar blue nylon burqas, but a woven muted green and pink veil. In one scene she joins a large group of women going to a wedding party, all wearing brightly-coloured burqas.

The women may be faceless, but the veils themselves are strangely beautiful.

By ordering women to be fully covered, the religious militia also never quite know what is underneath the veil.

But the audience is permitted to look inside: girls secretly apply lipstick and paint their nails; Nafas carries a tape-recorder; and a man uses the subterfuge to escape arrest.


The journey to Kandahar must be completed within three days if Nafas is to rescue her sister, which gives the film an urgency that highlights the unbearable timelessness of Afghanistan - a country where time seems to have stopped.

This surrealism is not an aesthetic device, but a straight portrayal of a people pushed to the limits of survival.

Nafas falls sick along the way, and has to visit a doctor. Because men are not allowed to look at women who are not related to them, she must sit on the other side of a cloth partition from the doctor, who speaks to her through her child escort.

"Ask her what she has eaten," says the doctor. "What have you eaten?" asks the boy. "Tell her to put her mouth to the hole," says the doctor. "Put your mouth to the hole," repeats the boy.

The laboured repetition dramatises the absurdity of daily life in Afghanistan in a way in which straight reporting can rarely do.

As the journey continues we are taken on a tour of the surreal land which decades of war and the Taleban regime have wrought out of Afghanistan.

This surrealism is not an aesthetic device, but a straight portrayal of a people pushed to the limits of survival.

In one of the most memorable scenes, a group of one-legged landmine victims race on crutches to claim pairs of false legs that Red Cross helicopters have dropped from the sky. It could be from a Fellini film, yet it is quite likely to be real.

Although a feature film, Kandahar is half documentary, and many of the characters are not actors but refugees that the crew met along the way.

See also:

27 Jun 01 | South Asia
Inside Afghanistan: Behind the veil
22 Oct 01 | Arts
Taleban book tops US list
14 Sep 01 | Arts
Nostradamus sales shoot up
11 May 00 | Middle East
Iranian director makes history
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