'Kandahar' dramatizes Afghan plight
The film is a fictionalized account of one woman's attempt to return home.
By DEBORA SHAULIS
Afghan-born journalist Nelofer Pazira asks this question of Americans:
"Why do we have to witness one tragedy to pay attention to another?"
Pazira is also the star of "Kandahar," a part-fiction, part-documentary film that's named for the formerly Taliban-controlled city in Afghanistan. The acclaimed film was released before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but became available in the United States only this year.
"Kandahar" will make its local debut Friday at Austintown Movies 3 in Austintown Plaza. It would have played here eventually, but "our interest in the film certainly was intensified given people's curiosity about this part of the world," said Jonathan Forman, president of Cleveland Cinemas, which operates the Austintown theater.
Pazira hopes "Kandahar" will remind moviegoers of our human bonds.
Inspired by life
The film was inspired by events in Pazira's life. Her family left its home in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1989, when she was 16. They moved to Canada, where she attended college, settled in Ottawa and became a free-lance print and electronic journalist.
Pazira corresponded with a childhood friend, Dyana, who lived in Kabul when the Taliban took over. As women were stripped of their freedom, Dyana grew despondent. Pazira, worried that Dyana was suicidal, tried to return to Kabul in 1998, but failed.
Pazira contacted Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf for help. He didn't have connections in Afghanistan, but he was moved by her story. He adapted it for film, changed Pazira's friend to her sister, added a time element for dramatic effect and coaxed Pazira into starring in it.
"In a way, the film became a fictionalized journey of what I could not do," Pazira said recently from Toronto.
No professional actors appear in "Kandahar." Filming took place in Niatak, a refugee camp on the Iran-Afghanistan border.
After the Cannes Film Festival in France last May -- where "Kandahar" received the Ecumenical Jury Prize -- promoting the film meant giving geography lessons, or convincing people that Kandahar wasn't a food or a family name, Pazira said.
After Sept. 11, "Afghanistan was put on the map," she said, but in a negative way.
The attacks were "a crime against humanity," Pazira said. She was sitting on the floor of her apartment that day, watching TV and crying. "Basically, I was going back to the horrible memories of the war in Kabul," she recalled.
Still, Pazira wonders if Americans would have been sympathetic to the suffering and isolation of ordinary people in Afghanistan -- the message of "Kandahar" -- if terrorists hadn't attacked on Sept. 11.
Relate to pain
"We should be able to relate to each other's pain," she said, and "not just for one day or one week."
Pazira has relatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The people's biggest fear is that they will be abandoned by the United States. With "no structure set to guarantee the stability of Afghanistan," Pazira said, they believe another civil war will be imminent. They are tired of fighting and tired of fleeing their homes, she added.
"Kandahar" played for two weeks in February at Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights, another Cleveland Cinemas property. Response was good, though "not as many people came as we thought they might," Forman said. It may have been a knee-jerk reaction by moviegoers, given the plethora of news about Afghanistan since Sept. 11, he noted.
Asked why he decided to show "Kandahar" here, "Austintown has continued to surprise us with the reception of films that some people might say are challenging or limited in appeal," Forman said.