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Final Approach

Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Covert Operations

The conditions surrounding the making, and now the U.S. release, of Kandahar are as saddening as those depicted in the film. Mohsen Makhmalbaf's feature recounts the return of Nafas, an Afghan-born, Canadian-raised journalist, to her homeland to save her maimed sister from committing suicide. Speaking from his home in Tehran the morning after the U.S. military flew at least 100 bombing missions over Kandahar (a destination Nafas never reaches), the Iranian director sounded solemn but far from despairing.

Makhmalbaf sees the war from the longer view of the ongoing tragedy that has crippled Afghanistan in the past 25 years. Reserving judgment on the American occupation, he criticizes the Western media for its indifference to Afghanistan prior to September 11. "I believe that politics still determines who can enter the global village and who cannot. How else could Afghanistan be so utterly forgotten over the last two decades?"

While filming on the Iran-Afghanistan border, Makhmalbaf and his crew frequently came upon (and rescued) refugees dying of starvation. They also watched the Taliban dump the bodies of their murdered foes along the roadsides. During the shoot Makhmalbaf adopted a disguise; on one occasion, Taliban militiamen approached, asking if he knew the whereabouts of Makhmalbaf. The director feigned ignorance and pointed them in the wrong direction.

Kandahar has been heralded for its Buñuelian moments—in particular, a scene in which a group of men who have had legs blown off by land mines race toward the site where parachutes are dropping artificial limbs. But its satiric surrealism is trumped by documentary rawness. Many of these refugees (all of whom are non-professional actors) had not been maimed when filming began, but became so during the two-month shoot. Makhmalbaf clarifies that Afghanistan's ubiquitous land mines are not all left over from the Russian occupation—they continue to be planted by antagonistic tribes.

Since completing Kandahar, Makhmalbaf has been singularly focused on helping Afghan refugees. Yet, he says, he does not refrain from criticizing Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and Tajiks for their ongoing ethnic warfare. (During filming, he claims, each group shunned the others.) Last year, with his own money, he established a school for hundreds of Afghan refugee children (and is just now editing a documentary about it). He petitioned the Iranian parliament to change a law that prevents refugees from attending school in Iran; the ruling, he explains, reflects the government's concern about Iran's high unemployment and desire for the refugees to return home. Just this week the law was repealed. His immediate plan is to establish many more schools for the 500,000 Afghan children already in Iran, and those who are pouring in. He is also raising money to create schools in Afghanistan.

Makhmalbaf does not see his humanitarian work as a departure from filmmaking. Rather, he says, his films "are the continuation of work I was involved in as a young person." As a teenager, the director, who "opposed the king of Iran's fascism," attacked a police officer and spent four and a half years in prison, where he was tortured. After his release at the time of the revolution, he says, he ceased believing in political solutions. "A change in political structure won't change Afghanistan; the problems are much deeper. The change has to come culturally."


Related Article:

J. Hoberman's review of Kandahar

"Directors Without Borders: Afghanistan's Shock Corridor" by A.G. Basoli

 
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