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‘Nothingwood’ tribute to soaring happiness, crashing despair of Afghan director

© Screengrab YouTube | Salim Shaheen stars in the documentary Nothingwood

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2017-06-14

Lounging against cushions like a pasha while a multitude of hangers-on stream in and out of his Kabul office, Salim Shaheen thunders his assessment of Afghan cinema.

“Hollywood, Bollywood, Baiywood,” he roars, making a clever play of the “baiy” negation in the local Dari language. “Afghanistan cinema is Baiywood,” Shaheen repeats in English, this time with added gusto.

And with that, we hurtle into the breathless, sensational world of “Nothingwood,” an 85-minute documentary by French film-maker Sonia Kronlund released in French cinemas on June 14th.

The title of the film has nothing to do with Dadaist “nothingness in art” or abstract minimalism. There’s nothing minimalist about Shaheen. From his action-packed films, to his expansive frame, to his appetite for life, Shaheen is a maximalist in every sense.

What the middle aged actor-director is referring to, is the absence of funding and infrastructure in the Afghan film industry. “There is no money, no aid, no materials, nothing,” explains Shaheen with a cheery smile.

But that has never stopped him. Through wartimes, peace times, or just the eerie calm that passes for peace in Afghanistan these days, Shaheen has been churning out films at breakneck speed for over three decades.

He directs them, he hustles for the money to make them, and stars in them as he tirelessly holds up the banner of this nothingness called Afghan cinema. He drags along his exhausted cast and crew – many of them randomly picked off the streets – goading them on, shouting instructions and bellowing, “Lights, camera, ACTION!” even though his sets have no lights and the sole, low-grade digital camera recording the action is hardly worth its name.

On the one hand, Kronlund’s documentary is a chronicle of a heroic, but comically flawed, Afghan actor-director. On the other, “Nothingwood” is about so much more. It’s as much a tribute to cinema as it is to Afghanistan, a country of soaring happiness and crashing despair, a geography that demands creativity and bravery from its inhabitants to merely survive, let alone make films.

Playing ‘the idiot in the film’

It’s a country Kronlund, a seasoned French TV and radio journalist, knows very well.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 days before heading to the Cannes film festival, Kronlund recalled her first trip to Kabul back in the 1990s when most of Afghanistan was under Taliban control.

“I have seen Kabul with nothing, no shops, no vendors, no nothing – only speeding pickup trucks packed with Taliban,” explained Kronlund, sitting cross-legged on a couch in her Paris apartment crammed with photographs and souvenirs of her extensive travels around the world.

Kronlund first met her film subject at a restaurant in Kabul. She had heard about Afghanistan’s most prolific actor-director, but she wasn’t quite expecting such a dramatic encounter. “He was wearing a shirt printed with butterflies. He ordered a lot of food, too much food, almost to check out how much I could eat,” she explained in French.

It was a relationship dynamic that would be repeated in the film. Kronlund, a slim, calm woman, appears in the film – frequently in a baby pink headscarf – and is essentially a counterpoint to the rambunctious Shaheen. An incredibly brave man, Shaheen teases Kronlund when they’re in a car and she asks where they’re heading and if the locale is safe. “I had a choice to play the idiot in the film, but it’s not like I’m playing for the camera. I was genuinely scared. But it was also my role. He’s also playing; in a way he’s always playing a role. In the film, he is a courageous Afghan man of honour. But he is actually a very courageous man.”

When they began shooting, Kronlund thought she would be behind the camera, as she has been throughout her journalistic career. But the first few shoots were a bit of a mess. “We had a big team, including a security manager,” she explained. “I knew Salim was a good character, but it took time to figure out he’s a control freak. And he’s a ham, so it was difficult to film him without him looking at the camera and performing.”

In the end, Kronlund’s director of photography, Alexandre Nanau, suggested she should just be an on-screen presence in the film. “It was a good idea. It makes it easier to get the audience to enter into the film,” she explained.

Kronlund and Nanau also decided to cut down the documentary crew size, which afforded more mobility and security.

Making even Bollywood seem neorealistic

Kabul today is not the medieval moonscape it was during the Taliban era. The Afghan capital is a transformed city of chrome-and-glass skyscrapers, traffic-choked streets, giant wedding halls twinkling at night, and shop windows displaying everything from electronic goods to clothing in the latest Bollywood styles.

So much has changed, and so much is at stake should the internationally-aided Afghan administration crumble -- as it has so often in the country’s history -- to militants sweeping in from the countryside with a retrogressive agenda.

It’s a peril that overshadows every second of the film as Shaheen and his team defiantly go about their business, shooting scenes of themes familiar to an Afghan audience: of love, and war, and family feuds.

Shaheen’s movies – and there are more than 110 of them – are not the stuff of film festivals or award ceremonies. With titles such as “Stronger Than Death”, “Champion”, and “Vortex” they are derivative works featuring melodramatic heroes and evil badmaashes (villains) that make Bollywood films seem neo-realistic in comparison.

His audiences, however, do not care. DVDs of Shaheen’s films fly off the shelves in bazaars across Afghanistan shortly after their release. Although film sales figures do not exist in the unregulated world of Afghan cinema, shopkeepers know that a Salim Shaheen release is bound to sell well.

Afghan audiences have long preferred Bollywood films from India, with their focus on family values in a conservative society, than Hollywood movies. Shaheen’s films are even closer to home for an Afghan audience. His characters speak colloquial Dari, his plots include terrorist ambushes, checkpoint badmaashes, militant-slaying policemen and heroes blowing up attack helicopters with shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missiles.

Enter Ali – in women’s clothes

They also feature the actor, Qurban Ali, one of his regular actors and a character of such gender complexity, it is bound to spark questions among Western audiences.
In a country of strict gender segregation, female stars are hard to come by. Shaheen’s actresses tend to be young women, carefully monitored on the sets by male relatives and consigned to insignificant, simpering roles.

Enter Ali, an effeminate Afghan male and talented actor who often dresses as a woman and plays the more substantial female roles: that of dominant mother and/or nagging wife. His repertoire is not limited to female roles, however. Ali can also play a policeman or young man escaping from home to hang with armed elders. But he plays them in an exuberantly camp style that has Afghan audiences roaring with laughter.

Still, the obvious relish with which Ali dresses as a female and flirtatiously swaggers past macho security officials reveals levels of Afghan society that are often obscured in news stories. As in many traditional societies in India, Turkey, Thailand and Japan, Afghan society does permit some levels of theatrical transgressive behaviour.

Ali though is a complex man, probably one who does not know himself, which makes him a slightly mysterious and thoroughly loveable character.

“I’m not a psychoanalyst,” shrugs Kronlund. “I’m sure Qurban Ali likes to dress as a woman. But he has a wife. He says he’s not a homosexual. But then again in Afghanistan there’s very little understanding of what’s gay and what’s homosexual. He once told me that the difference between “gay” and “homosexual” is that a gay man has a lot of partners and a homosexual has only one partner,” she laughs. “In any case, I am not the police and I didn’t push it.”

A man of contradictions

Ali is also the only character in the film who permits Kronlund to film his real-life wife in their Kabul home surrounded by his numerous children. The couple’s relationship turns out to be more egalitarian than the usual stereotypes of Afghan gender roles allows.

Still, Shaheen is very much the Afghan patriarch and respected elder who shields his two wives from the camera. Polygamy is permitted in Afghanistan and it’s common for a man of Shaheen’s stature to have more than one wife. But when Kronlund asked if she could film Shaheen with his womenfolk – especially his first wife -- at home, “he kept saying she doesn’t want to be in the film or making some excuse,” she explained.

As a patriarch, Shaheen commandeers his sons much as he does his film crews. And his sons play along, as does almost anybody who comes in contact with Afghanistan’s larger-than-life film star.

Shaheen has never learned to read and write; his loyal team members know it, even though he will never admit it. He makes films starring women, while he makes sure his own female relatives steer clear of the cameras. He makes entertainment films, which are considered haram -- or forbidden -- by hardline Islamists, yet he never breaks taboos or crosses sanction lines. He is a thunderous, courageous man, with a childlike fascination for the cinema. And that, in essence, is what makes Shaheen one of Afghanistan’s best loved actor-directors.

“People don’t admire him,” Kronlund explains. “They adore him. Because he resembles them.”

Date created : 2017-05-23

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