tue 19/06/2018

The Prince of Nothingwood review - come for the man, stay for the country | reviews, news & interviews

The Prince of Nothingwood review - come for the man, stay for the country

The Prince of Nothingwood review - come for the man, stay for the country

Documentary on Afghanistan’s leading film director is an interesting but frustrating affair

Showman Shaheen leads the story, but never drops the act

In the most unlikely of places, there is one of the world’s most prolific directors. He has produced over 110 films, he’s mobbed wherever he goes, and he inspired people through the darkest of civil wars; yet outside of Afghanistan, no-one knows the name of Salim Shaheen, the self-proclaimed "Prince of Nothingwood".

This documentary, directed by French radio journalist Sonia Kronlund, revels in the surreal nature of the world’s poorest film industry. Salim Shaheen is a whirlwind of bravado – a former army general turned auteur, leading a motley crew of ex-soldiers and sons across Afghanistan to film his latest vision. He will tackle up to four separate movies at once, filmed guerrilla style despite being the country’s leading director. A scene needs a donkey? Go find a donkey. A shot isn’t bloody enough? Time to slaughter a chicken. It’s cinema, but not as we know it.

Shaheen is a showman, and you can’t help but feel played by him

Shaheen is inspired by childhood Bollywood screenings, but he has been shaped by war, and it comes through in his films. Be prepared for a jarring combination of violent gun battles and poorly mimed musical numbers. It produces some surreal and garish results, but in a country where art is rare, it’s turned him into a true Afghan icon. Even members of the Taliban would screen his films.

Shaheen’s story is remarkable, and he’s all too aware of it. He tours the country, claiming his mother is from whichever region he’s visiting. He demands applause from crowds when he finishes speaking. He also tells a lot of tall tales, ones which start to ask more questions than they answer.

Engaging at first, The Prince of Nothingwood begins to grate as we see hints of the man behind the myth. He hides his wives and daughters, he’ll snap at his family and crew at a moment’s notice, and he’ll patronise and manipulate those around him. It’s frustrating that the film does little to challenge this; director Kronlund says she faux-played weakness to make Shaheen comfortable, but we leave Afghanistan feeling much of the story was left untold.Despite the title, Nothingwood is often more illuminating than the Prince. The documentary sheds a fascinating light on Afghanistan and its relationship with film. People tell life-threatening tales of smuggling VHS players past the Taliban. Some of Shaheen’s own crew were blown up by a rocket while filming, yet still they continued. In a country torn apart by war and religious zealousness, its people have found inspiration in the most unusual man.Salim Shaheen and Qurban in The Prince of NothingwoodPerhaps most interesting is one of Shaheen’s regular stars, Qurban (pictured above, with Shaheen), usually found in drag or playing particularly effeminate roles. He’s overtly camp in his day-to-day life, a real departure from the behaviour expected from men in the region. Yet because he has a wife (albeit with no interest in having a second), he is by and large accepted. His disregard for what others think, especially in a society where stoning is commonplace, is remarkable.

The Prince of Nothingwood offers a great alternative insight into Afghanistan. It was an incredibly risky film to make, so Kronlund and her crew should be commended for that. Unfortunately, this leads to some risk-free questioning, with misogyny, animal abuse and lying given a free pass. Salim Shaheen is a showman, and you can’t help but feel played by him.

@OwenRichards91

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