Return to Kandahar, currently playing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is a documentary of a former refugee who fled Afghanistan in 1989 at the age of 13 and returns in 2002 to find her childhood friend. In what must be a cinematic first, this film is art documenting life imitating art imitating life. You see, Return to Kandahar is a documentary of Nelofer Pazira, a refugee turned journalist turned actress returning to Afghanistan to find her childhood friend. Furthermore, Pazira played the lead role in the 2001 film Kandahar, in which her character went on a similar search, and, finally, that character was based on the real-life Pazira.
In Kandahar, Pazira’s family flees Afghanistan for Canada but is forced to leave behind their other daughter. Several years later, she travels back to Afghanistan to locate her sister, who has written her a note in which she contemplates suicide. Pazira did receive such a letter in real life, but it was written by her friend, Dyana. After the movie was released to worldwide critical acclaim, Pazira received another letter, this one from Dyana’s uncle, assuring her that Dyana was alive. It is at this moment that Return to Kandahar, Pazira’s real-life attempt to find Dyana in Afghanistan, begins.
Pazira’s search for Dyana takes us to her childhood home in Kabul, the site of the Taliban’s dominance in Kandahar, and Mazar-e-Sharif, where Dyana’s family moved in the 90’s. In these cities she meets with the despotic leaders of warring mujahideen factions who, due to their power and access to information, may be able to help her. One such warlord refers her to a non-existent census list after she has waited several days for his audience, and another uses Pazira’s distress as an opportunity to extract money in exchange for information on Dyana’s whereabouts.
In addition to telling the story of Pazira’s homeland search, Return to Kandahar weaves an excellent Western primer on Afghanistan’s history, starting with the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973. Living in Canada for several years gives Pazira the distance and perspective that help her to concisely communicate the jumbled history left behind by the United States’ support of the mujahideen warlords who opposed the Soviet invasion, the civil war that engulfed the nation after the Soviets left, and the conditions that led to the rise of the Taliban.
Filmed several months after U.S. forces removed the Taliban from power, Pazira is amazed to find a country much different than the one she recalled from her childhood. Her former home is in a sorry state, her school has no books or chairs, and the few women outdoors are wearing burkas, which would have been considered a joke and an insult in the 1980s, Pazira tells us. While her disorientation in once-familiar surroundings and concern for Dyana color her mood and actions for the film’s 65-minute entirety, Pazira’s determination and courage in a society dominated by oppressive men are the images left with the audience.
The most arresting scene comes during Pazira’s visit to a local university. Out of fear of the several armed, fundamentalist men on the streets, the female students wear burkas to the university, but attend their classes in modern dress. Pazira engages in an intriguing dialogue with the students on conditions in Afghanistan and their hopes for the future. On her way out she is confronted by dozens of men who try to stop her from filming the women. Pazira courageously defies the mob and defends the women’s rights to choose for themselves whether they wish to be filmed. Viewers are given to cheer as even the spokesman of the group is caught off guard by the hostile, intelligent, and articulate remarks of this Western woman.
Return’s run at the MFA is over, but if you see it come by on DVD or in another screening, you should take note. This film packs human drama, a history lesson, and insight into current world events into one seamless, engaging package.