As I mentioned last week, one of my courses this spring semester is a seminar on women and Islam as studied in historical and modern, and cultural and theological contexts. Considering that I’ve been fairly obsessed with religious studies since the age of sixteen, particularly Muslim and Middle Eastern history, this is a course I was fairly dying to take. So far, it’s exceeded my expectations, in part because of the materials we’re analyzing. Last week we watched an Iranian film called Kandahar, and it has been in my thoughts for the past few days.
Kandahar was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2001, initially garnering little attention from the film community. Then, of course, the terrorist attacks of September 11th happened, followed by the American invasion of Afghanistan. The plight of Afghan women suddenly became a familiar topic in American conversations, and Kandahar was retroactively recognized as a potentially important piece of filmmaking, and was awarded the Federico Fellini prize by UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency.
The film is a modest, bare-bones production that was filmed in Iran and — covertly — in Afghanistan, and uses both actors and non-actors to portray the country’s poverty and deprivation, along with the special hardships that the Taliban placed on women and girls.
The story centers around an Afghan-born Canadian woman named Nafas (played by Nelofer Pazira) who returns to Afghanistan for the first time in years after receiving a letter from her sister, in which her sister says she will commit suicide on the last eclipse of the century. Nafas has to sneak into the country in order to reach her sister, who lives in Kandahar, and so she becomes a sort of stow-away, posing as one of several wives of a poor refugee who is bringing his family back into Afghanistan after living in Iran. Armed with UN flags as their only protection, the family is beset by thieves once inside Afghanistan, and turns back to Iran, leaving Nafas on her own — but not before she briefly takes off the burqa she has been forced to wear, only to have her “husband” tell her that she cannot do so for, as he says, “my honor is at stake.”
The story sometimes drifts, mirroring Nafas’ wanderings as she attempts to reach Kandahar, but that pace somehow adds to the tension and the sense of alienation. Nafas meets up with a young boy who has been expelled from a madrassa, and the viewer gets a glimpse of how so many children are given few choices besides either the madrassa or begging. There are also scenes featuring scores of people who have lost limbs to landmines, and figure that it’s better to sell their prosthetic limbs than to use them.
A substantial part of Kandahar concerns Nafas traveling with an African-American doctor, played by Hassan Tantai. Tantai, born David Belfield and more familiarly known as Dawud Salahuddin, is a curious casting choice, as he acknowledged killing a former member of the Iranian Shah’s government who was exiled in Maryland; he then fled to Iran. (He also fought with the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s.) It is his character who has a striking line at the end, “For a woman living under full cover, hope is the day she will be seen,” and repeatedly tells Nafas they will have to pose as husband and wife on the road to Kandahar.
In the end, Nafas joins a wedding party, her burqa blending in with those of the women all journeying to Kandahar for their celebration. The burqas are of all different colors and fabrics, and the sight of this odd rainbow spreading across the naked desert is eerie. And right before the credits roll, the wedding party is taken aside for inspection by Taliban enforcers, with each woman being searched under her burqa. It’s not clear what the enforcers are looking for, nor does it really matter. What amazed me was the notion that a garment women are (in so many cases) forced to wear is then used as grounds to invade their privacy and search their person.
Yes, Kandahar is often dispiriting. It’s not an easy film to watch. But it is a riveting experience, with beautiful moments amidst the bleak backdrop. For those who want to see it, it is available on Netflix, and hopefully is easy enough to procure. Nearly ten years after its production, it forces me to wonder what has really changed in the lives of Afghan women and girls, and what a sequel to Kandahar made today might look like.