Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s desolate depiction of life under Afghanistan’s Taliban regime brings its traumatic love, suffering and sacrifice to the fore. In line with the Third World Film Festival’s mandate, i.e., to raise awareness of quality-of-life issues globally and to encourage positive vision, the film splashes like a prophetic choice for the latest tragedy on September 11, 2001. The film itself shows us a simple but beautifully shot vast desert, women with burqa, man’s search for God, and the innocence of children—it doesn’t show the graphic picture of war but the results of one. Like many films that portray the day-to-day facts of life this film sees Afghan’s life through unpretentious eyes—it wants to touch our heart in a very unassuming way.
The film swirls around Nafas, a young Afghan refugee sets out from Canada to rescue her maimed sister still in Afghanistan who has threatened to kill herself at the next solar eclipse. Heavily veiled and disguised as a peasant, Nafas manages to reach Iran where a young boy leads her across war-ravaged, mine-strewn wastelands in search of her sister. Nafas is a journalist—and a tape travels with her. If she gets killed she hopes the tape survives to tell the world about her journey, about the Afghans.
Her journey begins in the refugee camp near the Iran-Afghanistan border. Her liaison negotiates on her behalf—she would pretend to be a man’s fourth wife to go to Kandahar. From now on she becomes a person without identity—a woman should wear burqa—locally called black head. When she raises her burqa to talk to this man, he orders her to put it down—his dignity depends on her compliance to the rules. Nafas bears witness to women in this land, how they put lipstick under their burqa, how they put nail polish—it was such a sad reality, a stark contrast between a stiff and illogical rule and a desire to feel beautiful. A UN flag could not even save them from robbery in their journey. This man decides to return to the refugee camp—and leaves Nafas to continue her journey on her own.
Again, Nafas had to rely her mission on man’s hand, this time on a little boy named Khak. Khak was kicked out from a boarding school of Kuran studies because he cannot recite the Kuran as the mullah wants. He becomes Nafas’ guide to Kandahar—after he left the boarding school and the mullah who taught the boys about Kuran and Kalashnikov. We are exposed with a simple fact—the words of Allah and a weapon to kill enemy and tear their flesh. The picture follows Nafas and Khak, two silhouettes in the vast desert on the way to Kandahar. Khak, a witty and persistent little boy, knows how to rule the world—poverty has even sharpened him into a man of himself.
After Khak, it is Hashim—a black American who people calls tabib. A man and a woman cannot meet face to face. So, when Nafas needs to get remedy for her fever and stomachache Khak brings her to Hashim. Bitingly poignant and satirical—Hashim and Nafas exchange questions and answers through Khak. A cloth partition between doctor and patient becomes a symbolic wall between man and woman, between twisted dogma and humanity.
What a black American has to do in this land? Hashim came to Afghanistan in search for God—he has fought Tajiks with Pashtun, and he has fought Pashtun with Tajiks. Hashim wears a fake beard—necessary for a man of respect there. Beard is a burqa for men—not to hide their identity as in women but to raise their status in the society. With the help of Hashim, Nafas goes to meet medical practitioners on the periphery of mine-strewn wastelands to seek for guide to Kandahar. Again, in the middle of nowhere Nafas bears witness to a handful of men who lost their legs—they run after leg replacements that are dropped from some UN helicopters.
Hashim negotiates with Hayat, a man who lost one of his arm from land mines near Kandahar. Nafas, again has to put her fate in a man’s hands. Hayat wears burqa, pretends to be a woman. They follow a group of black head—women with burqa—to Kandahar. They claim to be the relatives of the bride or groom, depends on the situation. The film then mutes down—no one can enter Kandahar without being searched. Hayat cannot enter Kandahar, a man under disguise as a woman in burqa is deemed having a suspicious motive. The film ends when Nafas raises her burqa and answers the authority’s question—it grants her entrance to Kandahar, a Taliban-controlled city in Afghanistan.
The film left us with many questions—does Nafas find her sister? Does she come on time before her sister commits suicice? And, what Hashim has said to Nafas on her tape lingers on our mind—it is HOPE that keeps people going.