Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Niloufar Pariza, Hassan Tantai, Sadou Teymouri, Hoyatala Hakimi
Director:  Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  New Yorker
Features:  See Review
Length:  85 Minutes
Release Date:  May 13, 2003

“One day, the world will see your troubles and come to your aid.”

Film ***1/2

When the above quoted line was spoken in the movie Kandahar, neither director Mohsen Makhmalbaf or his star/subject Niloufar Pariza could have envisioned how prophetic the words were.  Very few in the Western world seemed to give Afghanistan so much as a passing thought as they were making the picture they only hoped would call attention to the situation there. 

Then on September 11, 2001, a fanatical terrorist organization issued an attack that left thousands of people in my country dead, and millions more asking why.  Suddenly, this poverty stricken Islamic nation was in the international spotlight…not because they instigated the attacks, but because those who did found shelter within its borders.  A new vocabulary was entering our culture.  It included words like Taliban, jihad, and al Qaeda.

But while we were learning about these new words that concerned us, we were also learning about a people and a way of life that was almost beyond belief.  A world where women were oppressed, forbidden from public life, and were now being denied education.  A world where young boys were given over to fanatical schools by parents who couldn’t afford to feed them, where they were painstakingly brainwashed into becoming bloodthirsty warriors for a peaceful religion.  A world so ravaged by war and poverty that even Westerners with nothing more than common sense about health issues were revered as doctors.

It was a world that Pariza tried to call attention to when she convinced Makhmalbaf to make the film.  She was an Afghan woman who had fled her country for Canada many years prior, where she became a vocal spokesperson about her homeland’s conditions, particularly for women.  The picture is loosely based on her own story of when she tried to return to Afghanistan in an effort to save an old friend whom she believed had become suicidal.  Her mission failed…plan B turned out to be this movie.

And again, the irony of 9-11 comes into play…as a critic and movie lover, I see as many films as I can, but I have to admit, I can’t see them all.  Would I have ever seen Kandahar if not for the terrorist attack?  In truth, probably not…and it would have been my loss, both politically and as a film fan.  But I, like many Westerners searching for answers, any answers, found this to be a source for some.  The experience was a real eye-opener.

It chronicles Nafas (Pariza), a Canadian journalist and former Afghan who tries to re-enter her old country to save her sister.  Under the oppressive Taliban regime, where women were reduced to nothing in society and were even losing their schools, her sister has abandoned hope and plans to commit suicide during the last eclipse of the millennium.

With only three days to go before the event, Nafas tries desperately to get into Kandahar.  It’s almost impossible.  In the first place, the roads have become so treacherous with bandits and soldiers, and fighting almost so constant, that no man seems willing to take the risk of going there.  And in the second place, being a woman, she can’t go without a man.

But her journey is really just a means to an end…the real purpose of the film, which was shot along the Iran/Afghanistan border, is to show the Afghan people and their lives.  Amongst the sights we see are a male doctor forbidden by law to see his female patients; he has to speak to them via a third person and only examine them through a veil with a tiny opening. 

We also see a boys’ school where the Koran is chanted from rabidly, and a young student is expelled for not doing it properly.  He becomes a guide for money, where money is so scarce he actually takes the ring from a rotted corpse’s hand to sell.

We also come across a Red Cross camp whose specialty is artificial limbs.  Land mines and booby traps are a way of life in Afghanistan…early in the movie as the last of the girls’ schools are being shut down, the students are simply warned never to pick up dolls they see in the street as they are often wired to explode.  At this camp, we see dozens of individuals who weren’t so lucky.  Helicopters fly over, dropping prosthetics via parachute, and the crippled masses literally fall over themselves trying to catch them.

This is an exceedingly sharp documentary of the misery of the Afghans under the Taliban rule, yet so few of us even knew anything about it prior to that fateful September.  As Pariza mentions in the commentary, Afghanistan was poor, and had nothing to offer economically to Western nations, who in turn, showed no interest in the country.  Sad, but undeniably true.

Though one could argue that the film isn’t perfect, and seems to meander a bit from its central story line, none can dispute the power of the images and the suffering they convey.  This may be a feature film, but it’s no slice of entertainment…it’s a horribly real look at a country and its people living in miserable conditions.

9-11 may have been the beginning of the end for the Taliban, but who knows what the future holds for the people of Afghanistan?  One can only hope that one of the lessons learned from our recent tragedy is that desperate situations find drastic solutions.  One day, the world will indeed see the trouble and come to its aid…let’s only hope it won’t take another horrendous event first.

Video ***1/2

This is a quality anamorphic offering from New Yorker, particularly in the coloring department.  The world depicted in the film is both barren and bright, with blue skies and golden sands, and every tone in between in the clothing.  Detail levels are very good from foreground to background, and images are generally sharp and crisply rendered.  One or two lighter scenes show a bit of flicker as from chroma noise, but these are quickly passing and not much of a distraction.

Audio **1/2

The soundtrack seems to be a simple stereo mix, as I couldn’t tell anything emanating from the rear stage.  Dialogue is mostly English, and it renders very well, despite the thickness of some accents.  The voices are most of the attraction here, creating dynamic range between quiet exchanges and large crowd scenes.  Overall, a good presentation…the subject matter simply keeps it from being a more impressive one.

Features ***1/2

The solid features package on this disc begins with a 24 minute Canadian featurette “Lifting the Veil”, which talks about this movie, its star Niloufar Pariza and her story, and the impact both have had on the world since 9-11…it’s a good piece.  Even better is Pariza’s commentary track, which is loaded with insights on Afghanistan and the difficulties filming there, her own stories about her first failed attempt to return and her second return with film crew, and much more.  She is an excellent speaker…listening to her talk is as much of an eye-opening experience as watching the film.

There are bios for herself and for Makhmalbaf, an international trailer, and a stills gallery.


History’s cruel twists of fate can bring about many changes…because of them, sometimes a tiny, modestly budgeted film with no real actors about a poor country from the other side of the globe can suddenly become the must-see film of the year.  No one involved in the making of Kandahar could have anticipated the events that would make Afghanistan the subject of international interest, but their dedication made their work a terrific starting point for those of us who knew very little about that nation before September 11 of 2001.  This one is worth tracking down.

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