A Land Where Girls Wear Veils of Tears


When Kandahar was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, a few months before 9-11, the title must have seemed obscure to many in the audience. While Afghanistan's second largest city is unlikely to supplant Hollywood or even Toronto as a movie set, it now rivals even America's second largest city as a familiar dateline. We think we know Kandahar, as we think we know the misery of war. The story of an urgent expedition through a landscape of despair, the latest feature by Iranian master Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who also made The Cyclist and Gabbeh, puts Kandahar, indelibly, on the map of terrestrial hell.

In the opening image, a woman lifts the veil of her burqa, the bulky garment that covers every millimeter of female flesh, in order to respond to an interrogator. Her name is Nafas, she declares, and she is a cousin of the bride. It is not until the end of the film, when the scene recurs, that we understand its significance. But we proceed to follow this lovely, gumptious woman on a daring mission to save her sister's life. After parachuting from a helicopter into Iran, Nafas proceeds to slip incognito across the border, on a perilous journey to Kandahar. As she explains, in English, to her tape recorder (that she calls her "black box" and that conveniently serves to elicit information for the audience) Nafas is an Afghan refugee who has been living in Canada. When a land mine shattered her legs, Nafas' sister was unable to join her. In a recent letter, the sister, in despair over her plight and that of other Afghan women, vows to commit suicide during the final solar eclipse of the twentieth century. Nafas has three days to reach her, in Kandahar.

Though it takes the shape of an allegorical quest, with crucial encounters along the way, Kandahar is firmly rooted in the cruel realities of the Taliban regime. Shooting along the Iran-Afghanistan border, Makhmalbaf cast non-professionals in every part, including that of Nafas, who is played by Nelofer Pazira, an émigré whose actual quest to reach her cousin was his primary inspiration. The tyranny of a crowded Taliban madrasa, where the mullah interrupts Koran-chanting to catechize schoolboys on the features of sabers and Kalashnikovs, seems all too authentic. So, too, does a Red Cross camp where men assemble to beg for artificial appendages as replacements for the limbs lost to the land mines that will continue to claim casualties long after combat is concluded or the cause has changed. In the film's most haunting sequence, a flock of men on crutches scurries across the landscape to retrieve prosthetics dropped by parachute.

After robbers attack them, the family that Nafas crosses the border with abandons her. "There is nothing but misery, suffering, and massacre there," says the father about his native Afghanistan. Later, she hires Khak (Teymouri), a boy who lost his father to an exploding mine and his innocence to the demands of hunger, to guide her through the dunes to Kandahar. She befriends Tabib Sahid (Tantaï), a village doctor whose beard turns out to be as bogus as his title. He is an African American who came to Afghanistan "in search of God" and thought he would find divinity fighting alongside the mujahideen. Disillusioned by the actual experience of combat, he stayed behind to provide rudimentary assistance to people too wretched to quibble over whether he has a medical degree.

Viewing Kandahar now, post-9-11, it is difficult not to think of John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban facing trial for conspiracy, and not think about roads ignored.

Released in Farsi as The Sun Behind the Moon, Kandahar is rich in images of desolation, vivid desert stretches that, like the gaudy ring that Khak retrieves from the finger of a corpse, make the carnage seem all the more pathetic. We never see a single bullet fired, but during Nafas' frantic race to reach her sister before the sun is blocked, the evidence of human cruelty eclipses the splendor of the spacious natural setting. A group of girls preparing to cross the border back into Afghanistan is warned that they will henceforth be forced to live their lives under a veil. Yet a sympathetic man reminds them that the spirit can soar even above a cloister: "If the walls are high, the sky is higher." Kandahar is a wrenching reminder of how far below the sky we squat.

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