These days, everyone is an expert on Afghanistan geography and politics, but Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Peddlar, Gabbeh) is only mildy impressed. What took the world so long to intervene? he asked in a recent Village Voice interview. He'd arrived in the USA on a break from his extraordinary calling home in Tehran: to get his government to offer schooling to the hundreds of thousands of Afghan children in Iranian exile.
In the Voice, Makhmalbaf refused to take sides publically among all the factions vying to control Afghanistan; he doesn't trust anyone. Still, with the Taliban out of power, things have improved mightily since he unveiled his muckraking film, Kandahar, at last May's Cannes Film Festival. Kandahar? We film critics were as familiar then with that Afghan city as the Taliban knew what's to know about Revere and Quincy.
"The Buddhas had to be destroyed by the Taliban to get the world thinking about Afghanistan," Makhmalbaf said at Cannes, "though a million people might die of hunger in the next months. There have been two and a half million war-caused deaths, six million people have emigrated. Ten million women live invisible under burkas." How, in those isolationist days long before September 11, could he stir the world about Afghanistan through filmmaking?
His answer had come to him from a visit by a young Afghan woman, Niloufar Pazira, who had fled home with her family, making a ten-day journey on foot into Pakistan. Resettled in Canada, she became a journalist in Ottowa.
Makhmalbaf: "She showed me a letter from a female friend who remained behind in Kandahar stating, 'I'm thinking of suicide.' Miss Pazira said to me, 'I want to find my friend. Mr.Makhmalbaf, would you follow us?'" That's what he decided would be the subject of his film: the quest deep into Afghanistan. Pazira would star, playing a version of herself, renamed Nafas.
"I'm not an actress, I've never been in front of a camera," Pazira explained at Cannes. "But it's my story, me wanting to make a journey back home, to return and help. I'm an Afghan and know and feel every pressure women there are feeling. Women and children are the first victims in every war, and devastatingly so in Afghanistan.
"There's an 800 kilometer border between Iran and Afghanistan," Makhmalbaf said. "I was able to slip into Afghanistan for a week. However, I had to go back into Iran to produce my film, shot about two kilometers from the border. All the actors are Afghans, except for two Red Cross worker women and a black doctor. He's an African-American who came to Iran twenty years ago, went to Afghanistan to fight the Russians, and felt he hadn't achieved anything. What was left for him was huminatarian action."
The shooting? "There was no safety whatsoever, as the Taliban militants terrorize people. We were forced to change sites every day. I myself had to grow a longer beard and Afghan clothes. I was in danger of being kidnapped by smugglers, though I didn't know it at the time. A problem was the lack of cooperation of the Afghan community itself. The women, though living in Iran, were under cover and not willing to participate in the film, and none of the ethnic groups were willing to work together or be together. We offered to show a video, since nobody had a concept of film, but we had difficulty with the seating. We finally agreed to have different screenings for the different ethnic groups.
"But the biggest problem was hunger. A group of famished Afghans had come across the border, originally forty, but twenty died along the way. They were animal-like in the desert. We discovered them when they shouted to us for help. A sad scene - and when the Iranian government discover people like them, they are sent back."
Pazira added, "Being on the set, every day was a sad day, in which we came up with a new story and a new face of misery. It was all quite devastating."
Nothing more so than the characters in the film minus limbs, hobbling in the desert as helicopters drop plastic legs to the lucky ones. These scenes, ghastly and absurd, are only a bit of an exaggeration by Makhmalbaf. "I saw food being parachuted down to people in Afghanistan with no feet, no legs, because there are tens of thousands of land mines. What you see is real, though I merged fiction with the reality."
And the suicidal women who motivated the film, who had been Pazira's friend from childhood? "I haven't heard from her for a year," Pazira said at Cannes, as the Iranian film crew never managed its goal of pushing to Kandahar. "I do so wish that she is still alive."
(The Boston Phoenix, January, 2002)