One of the masters of new Iranian cinema, Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the founder of Makhmalbaf Film House. His wife Marzieh and daughter Samira (Blackboards) also make films. Mohsen is best known for Gabbeh (1996) and Silence (1998) and lately has been scriptwriter on his daughter’s films.

What is less well known is that he was imprisoned for five years in Iran under the Shah, is an essayist, author of many books and is an outspoken voice on Middle Eastern issues. All this made for extra danger when he decided to sneak in and around Afghanistan to make his latest film, Kandahar. Nelofer Pazira, an Afghani woman living in Canada, approached Makhmalbaf to help her get a friend out of Afghanistan. He was unable to help but made the film to highlight the plight of women and the country in general. None of the cast are professional actors and Nelofer Pazira plays herself, known as Nafas in the film.

Made well before 11 September in a time when not that many people in the world knew about the oppressiveness of the Taliban regime, Kandahar has a documentary feel to it as we accompany Nafas on her journey across the moon-like landscape that is Afghanistan.

Kandahar is often surreal as we view the world from a small, breathless hole. Nafas has to be covered in the burka like all other women. There are moments of poetic lyricism too, such as when artificial legs fall from the sky on parachutes and men rush forward on crutches like stick insects to catch them. The landscape is devoid of colour except for the women’s burkas and they look like a flock of misplaced tropical birds. Girls get a last lesson before their school closes about not picking up dolls because they hide landmines.

The film understandably won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes last year. Makhmalbaf successfully gives subtle insights into a country where weapons are the only modern equipment and where everyone and everything is seen either as a threat or an opportunity.

Since 11 September the film has gained notoriety. Apparently George Bush, not known for having the attention span to read subtitles, ordered a private screening of Kandahar and the black American who plays a doctor in the film has been identified as a hitman from the 80s. None of this detracts from the haunting power of this film.

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