But Kandahar -- set in 1999 -- is not a documentary; it feels that way because it's so closely linked to current events that if you fell asleep with this film playing in your VCR, you might wake up and think it was the evening news. Shot in Iran near the Afghan border, the film's rolling sandscape is convincing, and Makhmalbaf's detached style makes it difficult to grasp the fact that these people are acting.
It's also based on a true story. In the movie, the Canadian journalist Nafas, who fled Afghanistan as a young girl, receives a despairing letter from her sister in Kandahar. Her sister still lives there because her legs were blown off by a land mine as the family was fleeing. Nafas tries to get to Kandahar before the solar eclipse, when her sister has vowed to commit suicide. In real life, Nafas is Niloufar Pazira, not a journalist but an actress, and the real letter came from a childhood friend.
Driven by the urgency of a family tragedy, Nafas does not have the option of using good judgment; she must go ahead with her journey, however unsafe. Most of the movie is an examination of social conditions in Afghanistan, but what Nafas has to report is unique because, unlike most Western reporters investigating the Middle East, she can't shy away from what scares her. She only has two days to save her sister's life.
Kandahar isn't entertaining, but that's not the point. Nafas tells us early on that the real reason for her visit is to investigate the conditions of women. Although the movie does explore gender issues -- Nafas must travel in a heavy burka, usually with a man whom she must pay to act as her husband -- some of the film's other lessons are far more surprising than the much-discussed plight of women under Taliban rule. A scene set in a Red Cross camp, where people flock in search of prosthetic limbs, may be the film's most harrowing; crowds of people who are missing limbs don't get much airtime on U.S. news programs. And we couldn't get a camera into the tent of an Afghan doctor, who "examines" sick people in a frighteningly rudimentary way, even if we wanted to.
Despite Makhmalbaf's understated approach, Kandahar's unsettling images burrow into viewers' minds and replay themselves for at least a few days. Luckily, a few beautiful images are just as memorable. Kansas Citians have only one weekend to catch them.