'Nothingwood': Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Cannes Directors’ Fortnight
Only in the movies.

French radio journalist Sonia Kronlund chronicles the life and work of the Afghan self-made filmmaker and star Salim Shaheen.

“Film is a battleground,” director Sam Fuller famously said. But what happens when you’re literally trying to make films in the middle of a war zone?

In Sonia Kronlund’s fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary Nothingwood, we are introduced to the life and work of Salim Shaheen, an actor/director/jack-of-all-trades who may be the most prolific filmmaker in Afghanistan, if not the entire world.

About to embark on his 111th production, the exuberant cineaste — who looks like a cross between Gerard Depardieu and Steven Seagal (with his craft clearly inspired by the latter) — travels to a remote mountain village to shoot a project that seems to be part autobiography, part B-movie kitsch and part Bollywood fantasy. And like for most of his 110 other films, Shaheen is making this one with a few close friends (many of them war veterans like himself) who serve as both cast and skeleton crew, as well as a small video camera, a few Kalashnikovs and a box of live ammunition.

The results look schlocky to say the least, but, as Kronlund reveals early on in her crowd-pleasing portrait of the man, Shaheen is a true hero in his homeland, making movies at a time when you can risk your life for doing so — either by becoming a target of the Taliban or stepping on a landmine. Surprisingly enough, even the former seem to accept Shaheen’s star status, with one ex-Taliban fighter confessing that a DVD black market exists among the insurgents for his movies.

Kronlund, who is the voice behind the long-running public radio program Les pieds sur terre (a sort of French cousin to This American Life), chronicles her subject with a mix of generosity and slight skepticism. She lets the overzealous director brag about his exploits and his honest passion for film, including an origin story involving a wartime massacre and a movie camera that may either be reality or pure myth.

Indeed, Shaheen’s large body of work, however amateur-like it may seem, often toes the line behind truth and fiction, with the director playing the heroic lead of movies dealing with the plight of a nation that's been mired in one conflict or another for almost four decades now. “We spilled our blood for Afghan cinema,” he explains at one point, and while the blood in his productions is only a prop — it’s actually fresh chicken blood mixed with some water — the looming prospect of death is very real indeed.

In one memorable sequence, Shaneen and his accolades recall the time when a rocket exploded in one of their homes and left them all injured and shell-shocked. Another scene, shot in the Bamyan Province in central Afghanistan, has the crew exploring one of the sites where the Taliban dynamited a giant 4th century statue of Buddha, leaving behind a gaping hole in the ruins.

If Shaheen’s movies can look supremely fake, the violence that surrounds them is not, and Kronlund intercuts news footage to reveal the deadly attacks taking place in nearby towns and cities. When, at one point, she worries aloud that a neighborhood they are visiting may be too dangerous, the director laughs her off and says they’ll be fine — and that if they do all wind up dying, then it was God’s will. So much for the safety protocol.

While Shaheen remains the center of Nothingwood — whose title evokes the utter poverty of Afghan movies compared to those of Hollywood, Bollywood and even Nollywood — he’s nearly upstaged by one of his lead cast members: the highly flamboyant Qurban Ali, whose specialty is portraying female characters in productions where women are a rare commodity.

The actor, who otherwise leads a typical home life, is already a star on local TV, where he plays women in instructional programs that have an almost feminist bent to them. (Kronlund is particularly interested in this side of things, and also seems a bit critical of Shaheen for keeping his two wives and many daughters stashed away when she pays a visit to his house one afternoon.)

In the end, you can’t help but admire Shaheen’s work despite its Ed Wood-esque quality, because the pleasure it brings to the local population — a population deprived of movies the rest of the world gets to see — is worth way more than the judgment of any film critic. At one point early on, the star describes his vocation as “saving the weak,” and soon after we see him getting out of his van to help push a car down the road. Kronlund intercuts that scene with one from a Shaheen movie where he lifts up a car Hulk-like and tosses it aside. It looks as fake as your cheesiest '80s-era action stunt, but when the impulse behind it is genuine and the audience can feel it, what does it matter? 

Production companies: Gloria Films, Made in Germany
Cast: Salin Shaheen, Qurban Ali
Director: Sonia Kronlund
Producer: Laurent Lavole
Directors of photography: Alexander Nanau, Eric Guichard
Editors: Sophie Brunet, George Cragg
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales: Pyramide International

In Dari, French
85 minutes