Not unlike Capt. Willard in his trip upriver in Apocalypse Now, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira) moves deeper and deeper into Afghanistan, but the further she goes the more impossible it seems that she'll reach her destination.
Nafas, a Canadian citizen who fled Afghanistan as a teenager, returns to the place of her birth to rescue her despondent sister, who has threatened to commit suicide by the next solar eclipse. Nafas' return to Afghanistan seems a comparable act of sympathetic self-annihilation.
A reporter specializing in women's issues, Nafas cues up her tape recorder to document her journey, which begins in Iran where she meets a refugee family who will take her, posing as one of the husband's wives, across the border.
Kandahar is more spellbinding when it breaks out of the moorings of story and becomes something like a visitation from a haunted place. Less interesting as a Westerner's primer on Afghanistan's horrors, the film becomes truly transfixing when it assumes the languid, neorealist style of the Iranian cinema.
In fact, Kandahar was made by an Iranian, the celebrated director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh, The Cyclist), who had the remarkable prescience to make the film before Sept. 11. He based his fictitious film on actual Canadian journalist Nelofer Pazira's own true story of an Afghan friend still in that country who she feared would commit suicide. Makhmalbaf was unable to help Pazira get into Afghanistan, but he was intrigued enough by her plight to craft her failed effort to enter the country into a film and eventually cast the nonprofessional Pazira as the lead.
Making the film suggests that on some level, Makhmalbaf may have been grateful to examine a culture more repressive than his own. To his credit, the director has since become an outspoken advocate for the Afghan people, documenting their troubles and spearheading efforts to build schools to teach their children.
The desert has been so consistently romanticized in stories like A Thousand and One Nights and films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Sheltering Sky and The English Patient, it comes as a shock when those same sensuous dunes, limitless skies and faceless women clad in saffron, pomegranate and sapphire burkas transform from a vision of exotic splendor into a glimpse of hell.
Nafas' initial journey into the desert comes on like a warrior's preparation for battle as when she observes refugee girls, who are preparing to return to Afghanistan, receiving instruction at an Iranian school on how to avoid bombs hidden inside baby dolls. Often suggesting Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Kandahar's reality is so illogical, it is impossible not to invoke the analogy of sci-fi. In one scene, after Nafas has traveled into the heart of Afghanistan, she encounters the bizarre sight of an African-American man named Tabib Sahid (Hassan Tantai) living in a desolate village. Tabib traveled to the country as a Muslim freedom fighter, but, transformed by the citizens' desperate poverty, he became an amateur medical relief worker, dispensing the most rudimentary care. When Tabib examines Nafas in the way dictated by Taliban law, through a small hole cut out of a white sheet that separates examiner and patient, the reality is so absurd it feels allegorical.
Director Makhmalbaf is not always able to stay the course in Kandahar. Part of the film's aforementioned "dreaminess" comes from the plodding, amateurish performances of Pazira, Tantai and others in a cast of nonprofessionals who speak in a weirdly insistent, deadpan way. Certain scenes seem to go on forever, like one where a man who has traveled to the Red Cross post to find a pair of legs for his wife argues interminably with a Western doctor over the unsuitability of the legs she has given him. Such moments give an undeniable, horrifying sense of being dragged slowly but insistently into a place you don't want to go. The numerous scenes of characters struggling without limbs adds to the impression of entrapment, as when Nafas is continually abandoned by her guides and forced to continue without aid.
There is an exotica of horror as much as an exotica of beauty, and Makhmalbaf exploits the former as surely as some films have done with the Holocaust or Vietnam. He often seems to use the sheer Otherness of Afghanistan for dramatic effect, as in the slow-motion race where men whose limbs have been blown off by mines run for the prostheses that rain down from the sky.
Relief, when it does come in Kandahar, is hardly a blessing or joy. The limbs -- ill-fitting, looking like something out of the 19th century -- only make it slightly easier to function in a world some may question the rationale of even surviving.
It's an image suggestive of both the beginning of time, replete with the leprosy and plague of biblical lore, or the apocalyptic end of time.