As I was saying: When you look at certain films side by side, you begin to see reality shape the imagination. Here's Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin, a blood-and-guts documentary about life in Afghanistan two decades into the present slaughter. Right next to it is Kandahar, which addresses the same subject in the mode of poetry. The first film, made by the Italian team of Alberto Vendemmiati, Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Giuseppe Petitto, comes at you with the urgency of war-front journalism. The second, written and directed by Iran's brilliant Mohsen Makhmalbaf, operates under an entirely different kind of pressure. It's driven by a need to describe things clearly and, in the same gesture, to transform them.
Do you need to choose between these two approaches? I'd say no. In the first place, circumstances have given must-see status to both pictures. In the second place, the films keep overlapping.
Both Jung and Kandahar begin with the arrival of would-be rescuers, whose helicopters bob like mechanical gnats over the deep-cleft mountains. First we see the terrain, which is vast, daunting, magnificent; then come the people, who are starving and shattered. Many figures are incomplete, with limbs ending abruptly in a stump; and too often the bodies have vanished altogether, to be replaced by ambulatory drapes. What's it like to be an Afghan woman, buried within the burqa's folds? In both films, the camera tries to show you, taking an outward peep through the face-covering mesh.
The filmmakers who ventured into this country in 1999 and 2000–outsiders who came not just to rescue but to report and polemicize–seem to have built their statements from the few available terms: hunger, pain, displacement, vastness, obscurity. Think of these elements as representing a base condition, and tremble–because what you're seeing was the irreducible experience of yesterday's Afghanistan, before the United States started bombing.
Jung doesn't pretend to build its limited vocabulary into anything shapely. The movie wants you to see that it's been jerry-rigged, in much the same way as its protagonists improvise a hospital with whatever comes to hand. The rescuers in this case are two medical professionals from the aid group Emergency–surgeon Gino Strada and nurse Kate Rowlands–who enter Afghanistan with the veteran journalist Ettore Mo. Thanks to his longstanding relationship with the Northern Alliance, Mo is able to introduce the medical team to Burhanuddin Rabbani, the ousted president of Afghanistan, and to the (now late) military commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, who grant permission to build a hospital within their territory. The hospital, Strada explains, is intended for civilian casualties of landmines. In the next breath–perhaps insuring his hosts' cooperation, perhaps bowing to reality–Strada adds that he'll treat combatants as well.
But what does it mean to be a noncombatant in Afghanistan? The filmmakers bring us to the marketplace of Charikar, the town selected for the hospital, to meet the civilians: war widows reduced to beggary, young children employed as metalworkers. A scrawny boy rattles off his workshop's list of products, and then, as if having reached the end of his possibilities, rattles them off again. A woman, bent and desiccated, tells us her life is unbearable, yet cannot be escaped: "Not even Death wants the people of Afghanistan."
As for the fighters: The camera takes us into the hovel that was serving as Charikar's dispensary, so we can see how Strada pulls shrapnel from the hole that used to be a man's eye, or how he removes the bloody pulp dangling from a teenager's thigh. Strada works with no X-rays and precious little anesthesia, in an operating room heated by a dung-burning stove. When he learns that he can't change his scrubs between operations or use a fresh amputation saw–where's the autoclave, by the way?–he temporarily stalks out, leaving the teenager strapped to a cruciform table.
Can things get any worse? Sure. The Emergency medics fly back to Italy to arrange for a shipment of supplies; by the time they return, the Taliban have taken Charikar. Strada and Rowlands have to set up in another area, amid the tents of refugees. Medical care? "There are 100,000 people out there with nothing," Rowlands snaps.
Things can also get better. In August 1999, seven truckloads of supplies and equipment get through from Italy, and Strada and Rowlands set up a real hospital in Anbar. They hire a staff, 80 percent of whom are Kurds; they banish weapons and burqas from the wards and even persuade the Northern Alliance to park its tanks elsewhere. Considering what you've witnessed till now, you will perhaps excuse Jung for treating these achievements as a climax, and for turning Strada and Rowlands into heroes. There, too, reality seems to have shaped the storytellers' imaginations.
Besides, in its final effect Jung is anything but celebratory. The film ends with scenes of Afghans in the midst of mourning and burial, and of the Emergency team making plans to open another hospital–this one, for the sake of political neutrality, to be built in the Taliban zone. You don't need the perspective of recent events to see the irony. All of the Emergency facilities may have been blown up by now, and all the patients with them; yet as Strada, Rowlands and the filmmakers seem to have understood, the likelihood of futility was in this case no excuse for inaction. Jung is rough, visceral and harsh–but it's also undespairing, and indispensable.
Kandahar, too, is an indispensable film, though in an utterly different mode. Shot in Iran, in and around a village of Afghan refugees, it's more fantasy than reportage, like Makhmalbaf's earlier Gabbeh. The director found dunes and wretched sojourners and shaped them into a country of his own; he looked into the face of Nelofer Pazira, listened to her hopes and fears, and dreamed a story. Upon seeing Makhmalbaf's vision of Afghanistan, some have been shocked at its lighter-than-air beauty. Yes, the film is marvelous to look at, for all its horror, chaos and absurdity. Rotting plants sometimes give off a wonderful phosphorescence.
It's useful to know that Pazira, a Kabul native who now resides in Canada, came to Makhmalbaf in the late 1990s and asked for his help. She wanted to enter Afghanistan to search for an old friend, whose most recent letter, about life under the Taliban, amounted to a suicide note. Would Makhmalbaf accompany Pazira and film her journey? No, he said. But then he sneaked into Afghanistan on his own, threw himself into research and started writing a screenplay, with the lead role crafted for Pazira.
So we have Kandahar: a story about an Afghan-born journalist with the suggestive name of Nafas, or breath, who comes back from Canada hoping to rescue her sister. Having been left behind years ago when the family fled, this sister has now sent a letter announcing her intention to commit suicide during the last eclipse of the twentieth century. By the time Nafas reaches a camp on the Iranian side of the border, the eclipse is only two days away. Nafas must now cross the desert to Kandahar as a lone woman, outfitted only with a tape recorder, a wad of dollars and the unaccustomed weight of a sage-green burqa.
It's easy enough to locate Kandahar within a tradition of symbolically charged, quasi-documentary road movies. (Think of Viaggio in Italia, Apocalypse Now, Lamerica.) The challenge, once the categorization is done, is to watch Makhmalbaf's uncanny images and characters without becoming giddy. The astonishment starts with the revelation of Nafas's face, with its gently elongated features and clear hazel eyes. She lifts her burqa to say her name, and the veil's mesh casts a sharp grid across her forehead: a stamp of prison darkness, you might say, on a face briefly turned to the light. Soon this woman will be courted with a ring torn from the finger of a skeleton. A scoundrel by the roadside will offer to sell her a set of prosthetic legs–his mother's, he claims–saying it's good to keep a pair handy. A doctor will examine her through a tiny peephole in a curtain, which reduces Nafas to scattered parts: an eye, an ear, a mouth. Then, in English, he will warn her of the danger she faces, just before he removes his false beard.
It seems that everyone in Kandahar is disguised in some way. There's Nafas, who crosses the border pretending to be someone's fourth wife; the doctor (Hassan Tantaï), who lacks a medical degree but knows enough to prescribe bread, three times a day; the young ring-bearer, Khak (Sadou Teymouri), expelled from a Koranic school for faking his way through the chanting; the roadside scoundrel, who winds up hiding under a burqa. He's the comic relief. The real import of the burqa becomes clear when Nafas at last sees the eclipse: not an astronomical event, but the masking of sunlight through the veil.
Jung has just begun a theatrical run in New York City, at Cinema Village, with a wider release to follow. Kandahar will go into nationwide release beginning in January, following a special screening at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater.