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Film Review: ‘Nothingwood’

Variety logo Variety 7/7/2017 Jay Weissberg

Afghan director Salim Shaheen is a guy who makes the word “prolific” seem like a wildly inadequate understatement. When French-Swedish filmmaker Sonia Kronlund caught up with him, he was making his 111th movie — though it’s hard to be certain about the number since Shaheen was shooting four films at the same time. “Nothingwood” is Kronlund’s amusing, at times rousing, tribute to a man called the Ed Wood of Afghanistan, someone whose larger-than-life presence makes him more suited to being in front of the camera than behind it. Kronlund’s affection for her subject is genuine, yet there’s something unnerving about watching how Shaheen’s lack of cinematic talent is held up partly as a celebration of passion and partly as an object for Western ridicule. Streaming sites or possibly even limited Stateside art-house play will likely ensure attention.

Shaheen clearly adores the spotlight, reveling in the enthusiasm of male fans who see in the director’s cartoonish depictions of machismo — “Rambo” is one of his touchstones — an affirmation to their own fantasies of right wedded to might. Given Afghanistan’s decades of near-constant war, perhaps it’s not a surprise that the menfolk clamor for clear-cut, exaggerated deeds with no moral ambiguity that reinforce their sense of national pride and traditional gender roles. Kronlund’s documentary isn’t really interested in any of this; hers is an exuberant appreciation of Shaheen’s infectious drive, hinting at difficulties but rarely dwelling on them long enough to make deeper statements.

As a European woman, she’s allowed a freedom of access that would have been denied to any local of the same sex: Shaheen pays her his highest compliment when he exclaims, “You are a man!” As an old hand in the country (she’s been in Afghanistan more than a dozen times for French public radio), she knows the landscape geographically and sociologically, and plays at a certain naivete to gain less-guarded access to her subject and his cast and crew. These include his scriptwriter, Zaki Entizar, hiding battle scars beneath sunglasses, and actor Qurban Ali, a palpably effeminate performer who takes many of the female roles that can’t be filled in a society where women showing themselves on screen is, if not prohibited, at least deeply frowned upon. Audiences who’ve seen the 2015 documentary “A Flickering Truth” will be aware this wasn’t always so, though it’s important to remember that Shaheen is shooting in the provinces, where traditional codes remain inviolate.

Ali is one of the film’s most interesting figures, negotiating his undeclared, forbidden homosexuality by wearing it on his sleeve (quite literally when in drag): He’s hiding in plain sight, camping it up whether on or off camera, yet keeping a wife at home. His performance — he’s always performing — is the flip side of Shaheen himself, who projects an outsized aura of masculinity whenever greeting his legions of fans. Kronlund is clearly interested in this duality, yet her film, perhaps by necessity, skirts these issues, leaving much to implication. It also becomes repetitive, and would benefit from a shorter running time.

Chief cinematographer Alexander Nanau brings the impressive fly-on-the-wall camerawork he showcased in his self-helmed “Toto and His Sisters” to the Afghan countryside, dexterously managing to be an inconspicuous onlooker who’s also in the thick of things. There’s an inescapable irony in having someone with a fine eye for framing documenting a man with little understanding of composition. Fans of docus about world cinema may make parallels with  “Kahloucha: Tarzan of the Arabs,” which looked at the man affectionately called Tunisia’s Ed Wood.

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