A new vocabulary has sprouted in American public discourse since Sept. 11. Even children know the meaning of the words “burka,” “jihad” and “Taliban.” The title of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s latest film unintentionally falls into this language. This single word, Kandahar, is now a striking sound that conjures pictures of warfare and chaos.
But conflict is secondary in “Kandahar,” a haunting and somewhat uncomfortable pseudo-documentary. Instead, Makhmalbaf brings the story of one Afghan immigrant into the spotlight, illuminating the destruction and the beauty that paradoxically coexist in this torn city.
Makhmalbaf journeys through Iran and Afghanistan with a quivering lens, juxtaposing violence and scenic magnificence. Traveling by helicopter is Nafas, an Afghan woman who lives and works in Canada as a journalist. Led by a parade of men across borders and desert encampments, Nafas desperately searches for her sister who has vowed to commit suicide in three days.
In playing Nafas, Nelofer Pazira acts a role that mirrors her life. Pazira, a journalist, approached the acclaimed director Makhmalbaf in 1999 with an offer: film her journey to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and help her find a long-lost friend. Though Makhmalbaf declined and Pazira never reached Afghanistan, the two reunited a year later to create “Kandahar.”
Pazira lends “Kandahar” a resonant authenticity, speaking English into a tape recorder and documenting her longing, alienation and regret. Pazira also communicates with her fellow actors, many of whom were recruited from Iranian refugee camps, in the Afghan dialect of the Farsi language.
Combined with the clarity of Makhmalbaf’s camera, Pazira’s bilingual dialogues bridge the gaps that might inevitably result from a non-Middle Eastern perspective. “Kandahar” is not a fish-out-of-water tale about a liberated woman adopting the burka — it does not seek to differentiate between an “us” and a “them.” Rather, “Kandahar” captures a universal humanity, largely through its objectively depicted secondary characters.
The men who guide Nafas have tales worthy of melodrama, but Makhmalbaf stays true to documentary form and shows them as they are. Each has a story of tragedy or strange triumph, beginning with a God-fearing man to whom Nafas pretends to be married. As he is robbed of his worldly wealth — a cart and its meager cargo — he melodiously praises God and fate.
Nafas’ second guide, a boy named Khak (Sadou Teymouri), is similarly resilient. We first encounter him in an eerie, uncomfortable school for Afghan boys, learning precise definitions for “saber” and “machine gun.” Though he is expelled for failing to recite the Koran, Khak is a talented singer whose voice rises over desert hills and flows into Nafas’ thirsty tape recorder.
Khak is also a resourceful, aggressive salesman; like other characters, he does whatever is necessary to survive, including taking a ring from a corpse to sell for $5. When Nafas sees Khak clawing the ring off a skeletal finger, she runs in disgust and fear, refusing to purchase the token but finally accepting it as a gift.
Clearly, Nafas is unaccustomed to the conditions in Afghanistan. The burka chokes her — a rather banal metaphor made interesting by the fact that “Nafas” means “to breathe.” Nonetheless, she accepts the veil much as she accepts war as a part of life in Afghanistan, where one is encouraged to keep a spare prosthetic leg because of the innumerable land mines dotting the landscape. Again, her quiet acceptance, interrupted only by whispering nostalgia and regret, shies from political or social exhortation — a welcome contrast from assaulting and repetitive news broadcasts.
Nafas’ conflict between disgust, or at least discomfort, and reluctant acceptance of beauty echoes in the audience — viewers waver between feelings of enchantment and abhorrence. The sight of numerous multicolored burkas bobbing over sunlit hills in a wedding caravan is strikingly gorgeous, as is the shot of an army of one-legged men racing each other to the Red Cross, prosthetics floating on parachutes.
But underlying this splendor is the ugliness of war, poverty and dogma. How can a burka be beautiful to a people who normally see it as a potent symbol of oppression? Here is where the discomfort arises — when we cannot decide on an appropriate response, and are left stunned.
If viewers cannot stomach this strange union of beauty and war, then “Kandahar” might be an unpleasant, depressing experience. But it is the precise depiction of conflicting emotions that lifts Makhmalbaf’s film into a captivating work.