- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

The Iranian import "Kandahar," booked exclusively at Visions Cinema, has surfaced just in time to be overrated. Critics eager to welcome a semidocumentary feature that appears to promise a compelling glimpse at Afghanistan may feel somehow unworthy of passing skeptical judgments on the work of Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Nevertheless, the movie is an exotic fizzle. By now, enough documentary footage has accumulated as a result of the war to reduce the timely pretensions of "Kandahar," which invokes the city but never gets close to arriving there. The plot concerns the futile odyssey of an Afghan emigrant named Nafas, who has been in Canada since 1989 but returns on a desperate mission of mercy, hoping to prevent the suicide of a younger sister who remained behind when the family fled.
Never depicted, the sister reportedly dwells in Kandahar. Maimed by a land mine, she has grown suicidal under Taliban oppression. She has threatened to take her life within 72 hours. It's an utterly impractical deadline for Nafas, whose contacts don't seem to rival those of CNN correspondents who arranged clandestine trips to Afghanistan well before the recent liberation and returned with footage that reflected far more in the way of daring, revelation and suspense than anything staged by Mr. Makhmalbaf.
The most prolific Iranian director since the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979, Mr. Makhmalbaf was jailed as a teen-age agitator for theocratic revolution in 1974. His youthful enthusiasm for the revolution has cooled in recent years, as his vocation has come into conflict with the regime's censorship policies.
The pretext for "Kandahar" came from the woman cast as the heroine: Nelofer Pazira, who, indeed, fled from Afghanistan to Canada in 1989 and contacted the filmmaker when alarmed by a letter from a friend (in 1998) who had remained behind and appeared desperately demoralized. Because Mr. Makhmalbaf had made a previous film, "The Cyclist," about Afghan refugees in Iran, Miss Pazira hoped he might have enough influence to arrange permission to travel to Kandahar.
She was mistaken. However, her predicament eventually spurred him to fictionalize it as "Kandahar," filmed in desert locations along the Iranian border with Afghanistan. The movie itself is content to diminish the ostensible crisis by getting the heroine lost in the desert, perhaps permanently at the mercy of tribal bandits or fanatics. Simultaneously, the focus of pity shifts to amputees discovered in refugee camps; their self-evident problems suggest that the whole project might make more sense revamped as a documentary.
"Kandahar" certainly stalls as a would-be fictional allegory well before the denouement. Nafas' itinerary looks as foolhardy as it possibly could be. There must be more direct ways to fail to get to Kandahar, circa 2000.
Like many Iranian directors, Mr. Makhmalbaf has a flair for capturing the physical immediacy of locales that are seldom seen in the West. At the same time, inventing the scenes necessary to get a narrative from Point A to Point B and beyond appears to stymie him so consistently that the storytelling process looks primitive or undiscovered.
At one point, Nafas acquires an English-speaking guide: a wandering black American found posing as a village doctor while concealed behind Islamic false whiskers.
The identity of the actor cast as the doctor, Hassan Tantai, has become a matter of some controversy, revealed by a story in this paper Dec. 20. Mr. Tantai is thought to be the spitting image of David Belfield, also known as Daoud Salahuddin, a former Howard University student who killed a former Iranian diplomat, Ali Akbar Tabatabai, at his Bethesda home in 1980.
The filmmaker says it's a case of mistaken identity. Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said yesterday he is sure the actor identified in the credits as Hassan Tantai is, in fact, Belfield, who fled to Iran in 1980. Belfield, who was charged in a warrant with first-degree murder, confessed in a series of television and newspaper interviews in the mid-1990s to slaying Mr. Tabatabai on behalf of the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
This sidelight reflects on the movie's aesthetic shortcomings in one respect: It appears to be the most exploitable "angle" available to theaters interested in "Kandahar," albeit an unwelcome angle. Events themselves, as chronicled by newspaper and television journalists, continue to exact a heavy toll on the film's claims to thematic or even scenic novelty.


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