Kandahar and September 11
On September 8, 2001, Iranian filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar opened at the Toronto Film Festival. A semi-documentary about the plight of women under the Taliban in Afghanistan, Kandahar features improvised scenes by nonprofessional actors, including several people who had never seen a film before. With rich, almost surreal cinematography but little action, it was a film destined for a short run in a few art house theatres, championed only by advocates of Iranian cinema and human rights. But three days later Afghanistan and the Taliban were suddenly on the center of the international stage, and Kandahar gained immediate notoriety. Since the Taliban’s oppression of women has been cited to justify the bombing of Afghanistan, Kandahar quickly got entangled in the wrangling over Western military policies, but the film probes far beyond the political rhetoric into longstanding Afghan traditions and fears. As Philip French writes in England’s Guardian, “Makhmalbaf has shown that he genuinely cared for the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban many moons before our prime minister affected brow-furrowing concern on the subject.”
Nelofer Pazira and Dyana
Makhmalbaf came to care about the subject because of Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan woman living in Canada. Born in India, Pazira returned to Kabul as a child, living through the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan before fleeing to Pakistan with her family at the age of 16. One year later she migrated to Canada, where she earned degrees in English and journalism and began making documentaries. During the late 1990s, Pazira sought to re-enter Afghanistan via Iran in order to find Dyana, a childhood friend. “Dyana and I had so many things in common,” Pazira recalls. “We disliked the Communist government. We didn’t want to marry immediately after leaving school. We loved poetry, going for long walks and talking. We didn’t like the cultural expectations of women in Afghanistan.” Once Pazira left Kabul, the women began exchanging letters, at least until Dyana’s letters took a dark turn. Under the Taliban, Dyana “lost interest in everything,” Pazira claims. “She said her life was no longer worth living and planned to kill herself.” Eager to aid her friend, Pazira sought to re-enter Afghanistan. She contacted Makhamlbaf, largely because his 1989 film The Cyclist was a sympathetic story about Afghan refugees, but she discovered that the director had never met a real Afghan woman and was unable to assist. Disappointed that Makhmalbaf would not change his plans and join her cause, Pazira returned to Canada, only to receive the good news that Dyana had escaped to a city outside the Taliban’s control. Then, several months later, Makhmalbaf called to ask if he could make a film about her story. He would change that story slightly: the film follows a fictional character, Nafas, as she enters Afghanistan to seek not her friend but her sister. Maimed by one of the many landmines left by the Soviets, the sister has succumbed to fear and depression under the Taliban’s rule and now threatens to commit suicide before the next solar eclipse. The lines between fact and fiction get rather thin, for Makhmalbaf casts Pazira in the lead role of Nafas, the first acting job of her life. Many of the “characters” in Kandahar are actual refugees filmed secretly in southern Afghanistan, at a camp less than a mile from Taliban territory.
The Taliban were one of the mujahideen groups (“holy warriors”) that resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. “While we were growing up,” Pazira claims, “Dyana and I had idolized the mujahideen. We truly believed that they were freedom fighters. . . . I realized that they weren’t the best people when we arrived in Pakistan but I never told Dyana in case the message was intercepted.” Once the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the puppet government established by Moscow quickly collapsed. The nation was ruled by an alliance of rebel groups, yet the alliance soon fell prey to rivalries between the mujahideen factions. Afghanistan literally became a collage of separate territories controlled by competing warloads.
Given the state of anarchy, the Taliban’s rise to power was not surprising, in part because they promised religious integrity and peace. Known as the “Students of the Islamic Knowledge Movement,” the Taliban were the mujahideen who favored the strictest interpretation of the Sharia, or Islamic law. That appealed to the 90% of the Afghan people who were Sunni Muslims, as well as to many of the Sufis or Shiites who made up most of the other citizens. Most of the Taliban leaders were educated while living as refugees in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation, and were highly influenced there by the Deobandi tradition, an Islamic reform movement that originated in India during British colonialism. Due to generous funds from Saudi Arabia during the time of Soviet control, religious schools in Afghanistan were also introduced to the highly conservative Wahhabi branch of Islam.
Seizing power in 1996, the Taliban did enjoy some early success in rekindling commerce, restoring civil peace, and purging corruption. Although they profited from smuggling and opium, they eventually heeded the international plea to crack down on drug exports, but that move actually hurt their economy. Droughts, hard winters, and mismanaged cities also exacerbated the nation’s ills; Kandahar offers a panorama of an antiquated nation in dire economic conditions. We see tribal hatred, bleak poverty and the constant threat of landmines left during the Soviet conflict. As one character notes, “weapons are the only modern thing in Afghanistan.” And it was the Taliban’s tolerance of modern terrorist camps inside the nation—including the hub of Osama bin Laden—that led to their overthrow by the United States and their allies in 2001.
Although they claimed to reduce rape and abuse and to improve women’s health, the Taliban were widely condemned for their treatment of women. UNESCO reported that only 1% of students in public schools were females. The Taliban limited the rights of women to work in public places and forced them to wear burqas, or full-body coverings. Many of the Taliban were illiterate, and their interpretations of the Qu’ran were condemned by most Muslim scholars. Raised on a violent form of Islam (actually fed, at least in part, by books distributed widely by the CIA), they were prepared for resisting the Soviets but not for governing a nation or entering into subtleties of theological discourse.
Born during 1957 in Tehran, Makhmalbaf was a poor child who would drop out of school to organize an Islamic militant group to fight the Shah of Iran. Arrested at 17, he was released from prison when the Islamic Revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini finally overcame the Shah in 1979. Freedom inspired him to write novels and plays—and eventually to direct a string of highly didactic films, all glorifying Islamic history and values. But his later films, especially The Cyclist, reveal both greater artistic skill and a willingness to question what he preached in his earliest work, including support for the Khomeini revolution. Like many notable Iranian filmmakers, such as the widely admired Abbas Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf is highly influenced by the “cinema-verité” style of the Italian neo-realists during the middle of the twentieth century. The new Iranian realism features long camera shots and vivid, brilliant images, with many of the themes implied rather than stated. Both his wife Marzieh Meshkini and his daughter Samira are also filmmakers in this tradition.