You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Nothingwood’

Afghanistan’s extravagantly prolific director Salim Shaheen is showcased in this affectionate, amusing documentary about an outsized figure making movies in a battle-scarred nation.

Sonia Kronlund
Salim Shaheen, Sonia Kronlund, Farid Mohibi, Qurban Ali, Zaki Entizar (French, Dari dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5356274/reference

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Nothingwood'

Reviewed at Cannes (Directors’ Fortnight), May 23, 2017 (in Munich Film Festival – Lights! Camera! Action!). Running time: 86 MIN.

Production: (Documentary – France-Afghanistan-Germany) A Pyramide release (in France) of a Gloria Films, Made in Germany Filmproduktion production, in association with Cineventure. (International sales: Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Producer: Laurent Lavolé. Co-producer: Melanie Andernach.  

Crew: Director, writer: Sonia Kronlund. Camera (color), Alexander Nanau, Eric Guichard. Editors: Sophie Brunet, George Cragg.

With: Salim Shaheen, Sonia Kronlund, Farid Mohibi, Qurban Ali, Zaki Entizar (French, Dari dialogue)

More Film

  • Jon Voight'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' film

    President Trump to Award Jon Voight the National Medal of Arts

    President Trump will present actor Jon Voight, musician Allison Krauss, and mystery writer James Patterson with the national medal of arts. Voight is one of few in Hollywood who has been vocal about his support of President Trump in the past, calling him “the greatest president of this century.” The White House announced four recipients [...]

  • Zack Snyder arrives at the 2018

    'Justice League': Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, Zack Snyder Support Release of 'Snyder Cut'

    Zack Snyder, Gal Gadot, and Ben Affleck have taken to social media to request that Warner Bros. release the Snyder cut of “Justice League.” Snyder, who helmed “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman” and was “Justice League’s” original director, had to leave production on the film partway through after his daughter died, with Joss [...]

  • Whose Side Is 'Marriage Story' On?

    Whose Side Is 'Marriage Story' On? (Column)

    Do we choose sides when we watch “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach’s brilliant and wrenching drama of divorce? The question, on the face of it, sounds facile in a dozen ways the movie isn’t. Rarely are there winners in divorce, and there are two sides to every breakup. “Marriage Story” is a movie that reflects that [...]

  • The Letter

    IDFA: Kenyan Documentary ‘The Letter’ Debuts Trailer (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given access to the trailer for Kenyan documentary “The Letter,” by producer-director duo Christopher King and Maia Lekow, which world premieres Nov. 23 at IDFA. The film follows a young man who travels to his grandmother’s rural home when he learns she’s been accused of witchcraft. He soon discovers that the threatening letter she [...]

  • Warner Bros. Box Office

    With 'Good Liar' and 'Doctor Sleep,' Warner Bros.' Box Office Misfortunes Mount

    When Warner Bros. was crafting its 2019 slate, the studio took pains to offer more than just superhero movies. To be sure, there were lots of masked vigilantes too, but more than any of its big studio brethren, Warner Bros. was willing to take a risk on the kinds of thrillers, adult dramas, coming-of-age stories, [...]

  • Constance Wu

    Will Constance Wu Ever Watch 'Hustlers'?

    Despite her leading role, Constance Wu has never seen “Hustlers” and, spoiler alert, it’s very unlikely that she will. Wu explained why she doesn’t want to watch the film to Mindy Kaling (“Late Night”) during a conversation for “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.” “This is crazy,” Kaling said in the beginning of the interview. “I [...]

  • Ford v Ferrari

    'Ford v Ferrari' Outmatches 'Charlie's Angels' at International Box Office

    Disney and 20th Century Fox’s “Ford v Ferrari” sped ahead of fellow new release, Sony’s “Charlie’s Angels,” at the international box office. Director James Mangold’s racing drama collected $21.4 million from 41 foreign markets, representing 67% of its overseas rollout. “Ford v Ferrari” also kicked off with $31 million in North America, bringing its global [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content