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  Prince of Nothingwood, The Afghan Star
Year: 2017
Director: Sonia Kronlund
Stars: Salim Shaheen, Sonia Kronlund, Qurban Ali
Genre: DocumentaryBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Salim Shaheen is one of the most famous people in Afghanistan, but almost completely unknown outside the country's borders. This is because of his local specialisation: the world has Hollywood and Bollywood and their renown is widespread, but he has what he called "Nothingwood", since he is working with nothing, essentially, and creates films out of what might as well be thin air. Now that the Taliban have been fighting for control of the nation, Shaheen is seeing the films he makes as acts of defiance in the face of potential suppression by the religious fundamentalists, and describes himself as brave. French documentarian Sonia Kronlund would agree as she follows this maverick around, planning his one hundred and eleventh movie...

This was a tale of an Afghanistan the Western media were more or less not interested in, not a place where death and destruction ruled, but one where hope was very much alive, as if someone like Shaheen could get through to an audience of everyone there from the liberal minded to the hardline conservatives through the medium of cinema, then there was cause for optimism for he was wont to depict activity banned by the Taliban. Officially, his work was frowned upon, if not outright censored, by the fundamentalists, but there was a strong contingent of their number who enjoyed his morality tales of the poor fighting back against villainous warlords, or day-to-day, slice of life narratives that reflected not only his experiences, but those of many watching.

If there was a word to describe Kronlund's documentary, it would be "chaotic". Ostensibly traipsing around after Shaheen as he creates a biopic of sorts, good luck trying to fathom its plot, and as he shoots scenes with his one-man crew and loyal actors, you begin to suspect quite a bit of this is being staged for Kronlund's camera rather than Shaheen's. We do see clips of his past epics, which resemble home movies of the sort kids in America create with their phones halfway around the world, but while there is also footage of filmgoers (mostly men) attending town hall screenings of his efforts and laughing heartily at them (they're not comedies, not entirely anyway), there are shots too of them caught up in the action. The message being, these films may be primitive, but they illustrate the power of cinema to embrace and transfix people from all walks of life.

What we do not see are any critics of Shaheen (are there any film critics in Afghanistan?), as apparently it's not just the hardliners who don't see the fun in his work, the cultural intellectuals dismiss him as pure cheese not to be taken seriously, and it's notable that the clips we do see last mere seconds. Would they be quite as amusing if there were two hours of them, as he does make feature length productions? What was interesting was what he tried to get away with: a huge fan of Bollywood from childhood, he includes song and dance routines that have women dancing, a big no-no in that part of the world that could see the ladies in question be executed. Not only that, but one of his repertory is an extremely camp man who you assume is gay until we get coverage of his wife and kids, which could baffle many: is he in absolute denial, or is he acting out this outrageous persona as an entertainer? We don't find out, but he's another maverick in a film full of them. You don't know whether to laugh at the larger than life Shaheen or be worried for him, but he is testament to the power of dreams, and what better medium for that than cinema?

[Click here to watch on MUBI.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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