“Nothingwood” by Sonia Kronlund

By Lev Myshkin, September 14, 2017

Nothingwood by Sonia Kronlund

Nothingwood by Sonia Kronlund

Hollywood! Bollywood! Nollywood! Nothingwood! A gem of a documentary that took the Cannes Film Festival by storm. A wry look at the Afghan film industry through the life and career of Salim Shaheen.

Expansive, charismatic, narcissistic…. Salim Shaheeen defies categorisation.  One French film critic even went so far as to describe him as the Afghan Alain Delon, another the Afghan Spielberg. He is the larger-than-life subject of Sonia Kronlund’s masterly and hilarious documentary, presented at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs at the Festival de Cannes in 2017 to much acclaim.

Shaheen has made  over 100 films, of varying quality, and always on a shoestring (if that) in Afghanistan where watching a film can mean a death sentence at the hands of the Taliban. He is a big-living, wild-talking and outrageous figure, but perhaps not one you would trust with your life. Nevertheless Sonia Kronlund did just that.

She and her spartan crew travelled through Afghanistan with his troupe of actors and camaramen, Shaheen doing all the directing, acting and singing.  “I would die for the cinema!” he exclaims  – and you believe him. In fact he nearly has – he makes movies in dusty villages, amidst minefields and spectacular mountain scenery as well as in battle-torn Kabul – in the mid-90s his troupe was hit by a missile, killing friends and colleagues. Not everything is a joke, despite his irrepressible nature.  But he is not one to be put off.  He wisely announces that he is not afraid of death, “we just don’t know when it will come, that is all”. In their trip to the province of Bamyan they are accompanied by a rather theatrical group of security agents for their protection.

Sonia Kronlund is well known in France for her radio programme “Les Pieds sur Terre” produced by France Culture – and she has been making programmes about Afghanistan for the last 15 years. When she heard about Salim, she thought this would be the perfect opportunity to take a look at Afghanistan from an entirely original point of view. And she has done just that. It is a humanising film about a country and a people who have had more than their fair share of arbitrary death and destruction. Her documentary is a rose growing through a barren landscape.

Invariably featuring him as the star, Salim’s films are about the struggles of the little guy who eventually prevails against adversity. His troupe is small and compact, with a leading lady who is clearly a man, Qurban Ali, whose day job is a sort of Oprah Winfrey dressed in a burqa. He is absurdly effeminate, but like all good Afghans has a wife and a large family.

Salim Shaheen is still unsure of exactly how old he is and we are unsure if he can even read or write. Nevertheless with the help of his long-haired, dark-glasses-wearing scriptwriter he overcomes all obstacles and produces about ten films a year, at times making people pay for the privilege of starring alongside him. He is an immensely popular national phenomenon.  Sonia Kronlund’s interviews include a talk with a masked Taliban fighter who admits that even some Taliban are fans of Salim Shaheen, watching his films on their phones.

Nothingwood finally introduces this Afghan phenomenon to a world-wide audience

Intelligent and exhilerating – highly recommended.

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