On this 14th anniversary, I'm struck by how 9/11 seems something woozy and remote to almost anyone under 25 - in the way that, say, Pearl Harbor or D-Day, the Blitz or the Battle of Britain most certainly were not to those who were children in the late Forties, Fifties and Sixties. One obvious reason is the event's all but total absence from popular culture - which is curious for a day that played out on TV screens, at least in part, like a movie. But, as it turned out, there would be more films addressing the great cultural clash of the new century from the other end, rather than from the streets of Manhattan. Kandahar - The Movie (talk about a hit title!) was an obscure arthouse flick rushed into general release after September 11th, and wound up in your local fleapit around the time Mullah Omar and the gang hitched up their skirts and skedaddled out of Kabul. It offered a rare glimpse of actual daily life in the land whence Osama bin Laden launched his act of war. President Bush was said to have seen it, and he hadn't seen a film since Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Whether he enjoyed it as much, I cannot say. But it seems an appropriate choice for our Saturday movie date on this anniversary weekend:
Directed by the Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Kandahar offers an inside-the-burqa look at women's life under the Taliban. It's not a documentary, so much as a drama in which real people play fictionalized versions of themselves. The star is Niloufar Pazira, a then 25-year-old Afghan refugee who now lives in Canada. Three years earlier, she'd received a letter from a friend back home who said life was so intolerable under the Taliban she was going to kill herself.
Miss Pazira took the note to Mr Makhmalbaf, and the result is a film in which Niloufar plays Nafas, an Afghan-Canadian who's received a letter from her sister in Kandahar threatening to commit suicide on the last eclipse of the 20th century. Her sister was unable to flee the country because she made the mistake of picking up a pretty doll left in a minefield and lost both her legs. (There seems to be a general shortage of limbs in Afghanistan: Kandahar has more one-legged actors than you'd find this side of an Amalgamated Union of Sarah Bernhardt Impersonators annual general meeting.) Aside from an Afghan-Canadian playing an Afghan-Canadian, the rest of the cast is made up of villagers playing villagers, aid workers playing aid workers, amputees playing amputees, etc. The villagers had never seen a film, never mind been in one, and it would be nice to report they took to it like naturals. But, to be honest, the acting here isn't really very good, especially the speaking parts, whether English or Farsi.
The film opens with Nafas on the Iranian border, hoping to find someone who can take her across into Afghanistan and on to Kandahar. She is in a Red Cross helicopter, and that gives Makhmalbaf his first great visual image. The chopper drops its cargo - a pair of prosthetic legs dangling from a parachute - and a gaggle of young Afghan men on crutches hobble across the sands in a race to be the first to get to them. If you're wondering what Makhmalbaf's second great image is, well, it's the prosthetic legs floating through the sky again, but this time a couple of days east and with multiple pairs of legs and even more Afghan men hobbling frantically after them. This is a film where the same scenes and sights and lines are repeated over and over. As a director, Makhmalbaf is usually subtle, allusive, oblique, you name it, but in this instance the tone of the movie appears to have been hijacked by the crusading Miss Pazira.
As a Canadianized Afghan, she is unfamiliar with the burqa, but is aware that, in order to smuggle herself across the border as a wizened old Pushtun's third or fourth wife, she'll have to climb into one. Miss Pazira had never worn one before and says that she found it hard to breathe inside. Hence, her character's name: "Nafas" means "to breathe". As she disappears from view, she muses: "Does love pass through the covering of the burqa?"
She's not a good enough actress to pull off lines like that, but she has a very expressive face and beautiful, sharp features, and she's never more eloquent than in those moments when she's forced to reveal herself, raising the covering so that we see her chin and mouth and nose while the eyes remain dappled and mysterious, shaded by the burqa's grille. Kandahar may be the first great burqapic, but, given demographic trends, probably not the last. Still, any successors will be hard put to match these burqas' vibrant colors - the turquoise and orange models were particularly striking, and the moment when an all-female wedding party comes scrambling up the hill is really rather beautiful. A yard off the hem, a foot off the neck and a droptop hood, and Mullah Omar would have had a great export. As it is, the beauty of the sight underlines what enforced burqatude is: You will never feel sunshine on your face - by law.
The film brims with memorable moments that give you pause: The schoolhouse where innocent young lads with bright-eyed faces recite the Koran and learn the uses of a Kalashnikov. There is a glimpse into the OmarCare health system: A female patient sits on one side of a heavy curtain, the doctor on the other. A male interlocutor explains to the physician what is wrong with the woman, and he is permitted to examine the infected body part through a small hole in the drape.
The best actor in the picture is the old guy whom Nafas persuades to take her across the border. He's a leathery weatherbeaten thing who's got a wife from every Afghan ethnic group. But no sooner have they crossed the border than they're robbed and he decides to retreat back to Iran, leaving Nafas to make her way to Kandahar with a succession of increasingly unsuitable escorts, including an African-American man living in Afghanistan and wearing a false beard - "the male burqa" - because he can't grow a real one. Of necessity, all the film's characters, apart from Nafas, are male, because female identity has simply been abolished.
It is something of a clichÃ© that there is a savage beauty in barbarism, and the Taliban's modifications to one of the world's unloveliest tribal cultures make Afghanistan the acme of barbarous. It's not surprising then that, in Makhmalbaf's shots of a cruel terrain under cruel rulers, the desert and mountains and sharply sculpted features of the people take on a kind of harsh glamour. Still, you'd think, after making a movie that's basically a public-service message about all-pervasive violence, disease and oppression in Afghanistan, that Miss Pazira would welcome the liberation of her people from Mullah Omar's enforcers.
But no: fourteen years ago, she was "passionately" opposed to the US bombing, and thought instead that Washington should have leaned on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan merely to stop funding the Taliban. Would that have worked? Don't hold your breath, Nafas.