'Kabul, City in the Wind': Film Review

El Gouna Film Festival
The achingly affectionate remembrance of a troubled city.

Filmmaker Aboozar Amini uses impressionistic images and human stories to describe modern Kabul in an IDFA-award winning documentary.

For viewers who know Afghanistan only through war scenes on TV or films about blue-veiled women in burkhas, the impressionistic documentary Kabul, City in the Wind will feel like a melancholy poem about a half-forgotten dream. This resonant work captures the elusive feeling of the city better than others, through the interaction of real people and an unreal landscape that appears and disappears in the blowing dust. It’s a quiet film about ordinary life in a place where bombs, rockets and hand grenades can suddenly end it.

This feature-length debut, co-produced by Afghanistan, the Netherlands, Japan and Germany, won Afghanistan-born, Europe-educated documaker Aboozar Amini the IDFA special jury award for First Appearance, ushering in a long festival career. It’s a natural continuation of his short films and student work like Angelus Novus and Where is Kurdistan? which also centered on the Mideast.

Amini himself shot the superbly expressive images that are central to the film’s emotional impact. A sea of square houses disappears in a sandstorm while the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. Dark figures stand out in a palette of ghostly whites and dirty grays, motionlessly observing the city from a hillside. Visual simplicity calms the spirits, while the characters fight for survival. There is little narrative momentum in the film, however.

Overall, the atmosphere is meditative and, because the economy is in shambles, there’s not much going on. Kabul is, however, full of suicide bombers blowing themselves up on a regular basis and taking dozens of innocents with them in each explosion in a marketplace or crowded square. At one point, coffee shops buzz with the information that 70 have died in an attack. But these worries are voiced, not seen; they take place offscreen and haunt the imagination.

A father who once fought the Taliban spends a few days at home with his family and takes his sons to see a memorial garden, explaining to the little boys in a firm, clear voice that many of the victims who are commemorated were 14 or 15 when they died. Afshin, his eldest of 12, and young Benjamin keep reminding themselves how their father’s best friend was killed in a terrorist attack — death is all around them. The Taliban and ISIS are still a threat and their father is forced to leave the country indefinitely for his own safety. The boys sing a ditty about a yellow cat: “Stay home, don’t go to war or you may die.” So their father’s absence hangs heavy over their clean-up chores and visits to shops to buy food. We are touched by their closeness to each other, their acceptance of the horror around them, their survival instinct. As they play on top of a tank buried in the sand or carry a heavy load up an infinite staircase to their mountainside home, one wonders what their future will be.

Abas, a plucky bus driver with wild hair and missing teeth, is the other subject of the film, again very well chosen. He couldn’t be more than 40 (he has small kids he adores playing with), but his hard life and a drug habit have taken their toll. It’s a miracle his ramshackle bus is still on the road and, sure enough, it soon breaks down. He spends days trying to persuade a mechanic to fix it with secondhand parts and one aches along with him when, despite all their efforts, oil continues to pour out of the gearbox. Are those bullet holes on the bus door?

Amini’s characters are just right to paint a picture of daily life without the sensationalism that usually blankets a war-torn city. Professional editors Barbara Hin and Srdjan Fink smoothly switch back and forth between their stories, which end on the same note of quiet uncertainty with which they began. Though the storytelling isn’t slow, the lack of a narrative arc takes some adjusting to accept.

Production companies: Silk Road Film Salon, NHK Enterprises, Color of May, Kino Kabul
Director/screenwriter/director of photography: Aboozar Amini
Producer: Jia Zhao
Editors: Barbara Hin, Srdjan Fink
Venue: El Gouna Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Rediance Film
88 minutes