In a country plagued by on-going conflict, from the Soviets all the way to the Taliban, as well as being an ultra-conservative Islamic state, the existence of an outlandish figure such as producer, director, actor and distributor; Afghan Z-movie mogul Salim Shaheen is something of a phenomenon. The Prince of Nothingwood, Shaheen aptly coins the term to reflect Afghanistan’s almost non-existent film industry, is an exuberant humorous commentary on this bombabstic character who with ingenuity, ferociousness and a strong desire for acting and story-telling has provided entertainment as well as much-needed relief to a long-suffering population, for over 30 decades.
French radio journalist and documentary filmmaker, Sonia Kronlund, has been producing TV and radio documentaries on Afghanistan since the early noughties; reporting on the continuous atrocities of the war-torn country. With this offering, we see her turn to a lighter subject matter, one of the country's most prolific and well-known movie stars. Shaheen's films are not so much about quality and craftmanship, but more about action, output (a back catalogue of over 111 no-budget features), having fun with a big, heavy dose of ego. Kronlund focuses her examination over a six-day period, on location shooting in the country’s more stable area, the mountainous region of Bamiyan. She appears throughout, seemingly enjoying the ride and the on-going banter provided by this buoyant, big-bellied character, along with his wacky crew and their clumsy, unorganised filming methods.
Shaheen’s films are Z-movies, heavily influenced by Bollywood and Kung Fu cinema. They are essentially war films with endless battles scenes, full of kitsch and silly gory special effects with singing girls and sitcom dialogue. His films offer pure escapism to a gruesome reality; they celebrate the underdog and the powerless; the common man is the hero; the weak will prevail and the powerful will be punished. Shaheen and his crew spend their life playing out their childhood dreams. A crew that often consists of family members, Shaheen's not-so-talented sons, as well as the flamboyant Qurban Ali whose extreme campness and liking of dressing up and playing women contrasts the country’s political and moral framework; but somehow this funny transgression is tolerated in the context of the films.
A shocking revelation comes when Shaheen's tells of events where their film studio was attacked by a Soviet rocket in the mid 90s, killing nine members of his crew, including a 10-year old girl actor; we are shown pictures of her severed hand holding a half-eaten apple. However, weeks later Shaheen and his crew, unpetrubed, some even in crutches, are straight back on location, determined to finish their film.Salim Shaheen and Qurban Ali Female actresses are predictably scarce in Afghanistan and the documentary investigates this through delicate observation of the obvious gender in-equality that prevails. Apart from Kronlund, Ali's unimpressed wife (perhaps Kronlund introduces her along with his herd of offspings for shock value, juxtaposing Ali's effeminate nature) and one of Shaheen's regular actresses, the presence of any other women in the documentary and in public spaces is almost non-existent. The aforementioned actress appears at the beginning of the film, on set acting out a dancing scene with an incredibly tacky, over-the-top, white drapey background and Afhgan pop blaring from the soundsystem. Her hair is uncovered, eager and open to talk, explaining her desire for acting and performing transcends public scrutiny and disapproval; even then, her dad is always on set, intensely looking over the camera like hawk, making sure she’s never indecent.
Kronlund's directorial style is rather subtle and organic, allowing for Shaheen to carry the film for her. He calls her ‘one of the guys’, a sign of her experience, able to carry her own in an extremely male-dominated environment; the fact that she is foreign and not a Muslim, she belongs to a grey acceptable area. She never knowingly judges or mocks, Shaheen does a good job of that himself. He is forever boasting of his greatness and his accomplishments, reflecting his juvenile tendencies and an inherant need to impress. He's a mixed bag of contradiction; pursuing creative urges in a conformist culture takes a lot of guts, but then continues to adhere to the patriarchal status quo; he has two wives, who he refuses for them to appear on screen or even mention their names.
The Prince of Nothingwood is a thoroughly entertaining, incredibly funny documentary. Kronlund manages to uncover this little Afghan hub of actors and story-tellers all created by the perseverance of this larger-than-life figure. Furthermore, she minimises the resonance of war and by doing so mirrors Shaheen’s refusal to be victimized by the country’s violent troubles but instead highlight the importance of his films how they bring comfort and hope.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_