DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of  Kandahar, Massoud the Afghan, Osama, The Beauty Academy of Kabul , Flying down to Kabul, The Kite Runner, Charlie Wilson’s War, Lifting the Veil, Into the Valley of Death


Title:  Kandahar

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language: Iran, France, Spain

Running time: about 90 minutes

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

Distributor and Production Company:  Avatar Films and Studio-Canal

Director; Writer: Mohsen Makmalbaf


Cast:  Nelofer Pazira

Technical: 1.8/1  Dolby

Relevance to doaskdotell site:

Review:  This docudrama presents the return home of Afghan-born but now-Canadian journalist, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira) as she tries to return home to Kandahar (never scene on camera) in southern Afghanistan, from Iran. Along the way she encounters brutal and heartbreaking situations among the people, devastated not just by the war with the Soviets, which they have won, but wars among the tribes (the Pashtun and others). Apparently the Taliban are already in control. Early on, she encounters a woman asked to take her young son out of a madrassah when he fails his recitation lesson. That scene is particularly chilling: the boys, while rocking back and forth almost spastically, are required to chant or sing memorized portions of the Koran, but this boy has failed to remember them; the “teacher” accuses him of laziness and says he will never become a mullah. Later, there is a black man who emigrated to Afghanistan to function as a “good Muslin” and pretends to be a doctor (the medical scenes are like confessions). Then there is the assembly of amputee war veterans and the spectacle of artificial limbs dropping onto what looks almost like an extraterrestrial landscape, with its relentless collage of browns and sepias, from parachutes. The Red Cross volunteer impresses us with the simplicity of the survival demands of the people, something anyone going to that part of the world will find humbling.  The demands of the religion – the absolute obedience to the literal word and public observance—comes across.

    Studio Canal is one of Europe’s largest studios.  Why will European film companies take the financial risk for a film like this when American studios won’t touch it?


A related film is from French journalist Christophe de Ponfilly, Massoud the Afghan (2001, distributed from France by Interscope). This film traces the history of the Northern Alliance Ahmed Shah Massoud from the 1980s when he (ironically, along with Osama bin Laden) helped repel the Soviets from Afghanistan, to 1997, when he was countering the Taliban, while at the same time the Clinton administration was trying to negotiate a pipeline deal for Standard Oil of California with the Taliban. This film is likewise visually stunning with its panoramic scenery of a place “at the ends of the Earth.” The shelling of Kabul in the early 90s is documented with grisly detail, as the city turns into a likeness of Hiroshima. Intimate scenes in Massoud’s tents are shown, as well as the hardships on the Afghan people, with at least two on-camera amputations.


In early 2004 United Artists released the docudrama Osama, directed by Siddiq Barmak and the first significant film made in Kabul since its liberation from the Taliban.  The setup is Afghanistan after the Taliban has taken over after driving out the Soviets. A twelve year old girl played by Marina Golbhari, masquerades a boy to try to find work after her father is killed and mother dispossessed by a Taliban raid. Eventually she winds up in a disturbing bathhouse scene where an creepy old grizzled mullah with a pot belly and gray beard and chest hair teaches young boys to “clean themselves.” She runs, as the boys become suspicious about her feminine hands and feet (not sure how this makes sense before puberty). She is “caught” after she climbs a tree but cannot come down. She escapes death by stoning by being married off. The on-location cinematography is surreal, with its subdued browns and grays and surrounding mud brick ruins; the contrast of women massed together in blue burqas and chanting gives the effect of being on another planet, as do the scenes of boys huddled in madrassahs and rocking as they memorize the Koran. The treatment of women is supposed to feed the notion of family in a theocratic patriarchy; but it is inconceivable to our culture how such practices could promote family as we know it, or compel the interest of men.  This film was selling out at the only theater showing it in Washington, DC, in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Yet distributors are afraid to put these kinds of films in larger multiplexes. 


The Beauty Academy of Kabul (2004, Shadow Distribution, dir. Liz Mermin, 75 min, PG). I recall doing a project report on Afghanistan in ninth grade in 1958. Little did I know, or maybe I did. The only safe way to see this part of the world – a place at the end of the earth -- seems to be independent films like this. A few women travel to Kabul in 2003 to set up a beauty shop and training center for female vanity, which is still repressed because in practice Afghan women are still very subservient to their husbands, living in arranged marriages. The film makes one ponder the idea that the female is to receive attention to beauty, but not often so in much of the Muslim world. A few of them had emigrated from Afghanistan in the late 1970s when Kabul was a relatively bustling city. We know the history of the Soviet occupation, Osama bin Laden, and the Taliban takeover in 1996, as well as the war in 2001.  The people in this landlocked Central Asian country look mostly Caucasian, rather Mediterranean and only slightly darkened in this ultraviolet-laden high country, the men sometimes rather hairy, as in Iran.


Flying Down to Kabul (2005, PBS Wide Angle, dir. Simone Aaberg Kaern, 45 min) has a young woman Simone in Copenhagen flying a piper cub all the way to Kabul (dealing with military AWAC's more than once) to meet an young Afghan woman who also aspires to be a pilot. Since the dispersal of the Taliban in 2001, this has become possible for women, but an afterword on the show warns that Taliban-style religious fundamentalism is returning to Afghanistan.


The Kite Runner (2007, Paramount Classics / Dreamworks / Participant, dir. Marc Forster, based on the novel by Khalid Hosseini) with Khalid Abdalla as the writer Amir, detailed blogger review here.


Charlie Wilson’s War (2007, Universal / Participant, dir. Mike Nichols, book by George Crile, “Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History,” 97 min, R) is another satirical history lesson, about how Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson wheeled and dealed (in a style befitting the “Dallas” TV series) the CIA into supporting the mujhadeen in Afghanistan to overcome the Russian invaders over a period of about eight years throughout the Reagan years (the 1980s). He constantly flies back and forth between Washington, Houston, Pakistan, Israel and Egypt (with repeated turnaround trans-Atlantic trips), and certainly must have endured a lot of jet lag and vascular leg cramps. Everyman Tom Hanks plays the Congressman, with a flair that suggests he could be anybody (even me). Born again anti-Commie fundraiser Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) deceives herself into believing that Christianity can save everything (even if she is not above seducing Charlie in a bathtub), and Charlie finds himself negotiating around all the treacherous hatreds in the Middle East, with a main point being that American weapons cannot be used, but that Israel has a cache of captured Soviet weapons that the rebels can indeed use. He has to fight off an unjust investigation by Rudy Giuliani of rumored cocaine use. The Soviet attack scenes (filmed in Morocco), with shots of maimed children, are quite compelling and shocking, and the film could have used a wider aspect ratio than the standard 1.85:1 that is used here. Philip Seymour Hoffman is bearded compadre Gus Avrakatos.  Geeky weapons analyst and ex Naval officer (one wonders why ex-) Mike Vickers is played by the lanky Christopher Denham, who in one scene carries on a chess simultaneous exhibition (calling out moves from away from the board like “Bishop to Queen Night Seven” while talking to the fibbies, and then hollers, “Don’t trade Queens with Me.”  That saying is prescient for what follows at the end, when Wilson says we evicted the Commies but f__ked up the end game. Did anyone notice that Wilson was also Ronald Reagan’s middle name?  


CNN’s “Lifting the Veil” (2007) from its Special Investigations Unit, with Sharmeen-Obaid-Chino returning to Afghanistan to followup on “Beneath the Veil” in 2001 by Saira Shah, blogger review here. 


Sebastian Junger and Tim Herrington pair up to document “Into the Valley of Death” (2007 / Vanity Fair/ABC, 6 min), link, to accompany the Jan 2008 Vanity Fair article. Junger relates that most of the good will toward some American journalists in Afghanistan has evaporated; the fighting is hand-to-hand with shovels and foxholes, like Army basic. One US soldier had been given a chance to bypass jail after trouble with the law. That didn’t used to be acceptable (that is a pretext of the recent film “Atonement”) but it is going on now with the shortage of troops for repeated deployments (“don’t ask don’t tell” doesn’t help).


Related reviews: Sebastian Junger’s work; The Road to Guantanamo


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