Here’s the question that was unfortunately raised during and after my viewing of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, and it’s a question I feel almost a little guilty in asking: At what point can a film forgo telling its story in favor of other aspects and still call itself a film? Of course, a film can technically be anything it wants to be, but there’s an implicit understanding between a fictional film and its audience that there will be a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end, and an arc that the characters will go through on their journey. With Kandahar, however, there is no arc; there is no journey. And it wouldn’t make too much of a difference if the film didn’t start off with the implication that it would be taking us on a journey. Mild to major spoilers follow.
Nafas is an Afghani woman who lives in Canada, on her way back to Afghanistan upon receiving a letter from her sister, who still lives there, telling Nafas that she wants to commit suicide during the next solar eclipse. When Nafas arrives in Iran and manages to cross the border into Afghanistan, she has three days to make it to the city of Kandahar, so she can meet with her sister and convince her that life is worth living. I feel that it goes without saying that the above plot summary would be applicable to the film in question, but oh no; not Kandahar. The film opens with a voiceover (that somehow bleeds into on-screen talking into a tape recorder, yet still sounds like voiceover – goddamn overdubbing) detailing the plot to us and why Nafas is making the journey she is making, and then for the next 80 minutes or so, she journeys… and then the film ends. Seriously. I try not to talk about the endings of these films so that you, if you do decide to watch them, even if you end up not liking it, will have something to watch the film for; something to at least make sure you walk away from the film with: closure. Kandahar has no closure. Zero. Zip. None. Nafas, after being let through a Taliban checkpoint, puts her veil back on, and sees the sunset over the city of Kandahar, which is just within walking distance… and that’s the end of the film. She doesn’t get there. She doesn’t talk to her sister, or give her sister the tape recorder she has been using to dialogue her journey in order to help convince the sister not to kill herself; the film is literally missing the third act of its own story – the resolution. Now, to defend the film, it does have something instead; the film offers a portrait of what Afghan citizens, in particular women, are forced to go through just to live a life in the war-torn country, and it is a potent image indeed. I have to admit, it’s an image that Kandahar was largely at the forefront of unveiling to the world, having come out in 2001 and rediscovered after 9/11, and it’s an image that we have been inundated with in the decade-plus since, and thus Kandahar’s rudimentary handling of the material comes off as largely ‘been there, done that’, but again, I have to give the film credit for being one of the first to cover it, even if I’ve seen plenty of depictions of the same material since that have been done better.
But, and as I mulled over the film after seeing it, I realized it was an intimidatingly large but, what Kandahar does accomplish is still overshadowed by the fact that it does it all under the context of telling a story, and then never delivers on that context. Oftentimes, films will fail at the box office because of a poor marketing strategy, which gives people going into a film the wrong idea of what kind of film it will be, but with Kandahar, the poor marketing strategy isn’t in the marketing; it’s in the film itself. Add to that that the film looked like it was shot with a consumer handheld camera in the early 1990s instead of 2001, and this ended up pissing me off more than it did impress me. I found a great deal of humor in the fact that the one aspect I did enjoy, the character of the American-Islamic doctor, was played by an actual American convert to Islam who, and this is no joke, is wanted for the assassination of an Iranian citizen on American soil under orders from the Iranian government. The guy is a decent actor, I’ll give him that. But what I won’t give is director Mohsen Makhmalbaf the accolades everyone else feels he is due with this film. It may have been important, especially in the wake of the world event that would unintentionally shine a light onto it, but it was just a big ball of nothing thanks to the fact that the film, plot, and characters just don’t go anywhere; a backwards notion given what the film purports to be the plot. If you’re looking for a film about the struggles of women living under the rule of the Taliban, Kandahar will do nicely, but don’t expect to feel satisfied after seeing it, especially if you’ve seen any other film of any kind ever made.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10