Issue 30 (2010)
Andrei Kavun, Kandahar (Kandagar, 2010)
reviewed by Anindita Banerjee © 2010
Viewing Kandahar in the United States in September 2010 is a strange experience indeed. America’s nine-year military presence in Afghanistan has been overtaken by a chain-reaction of highly mediatized spectacles, all clamoring for the restoration of 9/11 in the national cultural memory: the grievance against a Sufi-led cultural center in downtown Manhattan, a parade complete with costumes and floats around Ground Zero, a preacher calling upon citizens to burn the Koran on the fateful date. The teeming, persistent half-lives of September 11, 2001 cannot help but bleed into Kavun’s rendition—a word which has also lost its innocence over the last decade to stand for “disappearing beyond borders”—of a real-life incident inextricably bound with the politics of memory and forgetting.
In 1995, the crew of a Russian IL-76 aircraft en route to Kabul was forced by the Taliban to land in Kandahar and held captive in the war-torn city for more than a year. The film visualizes the long twilight of the physical, juridical, and cognitive disappearance of this group of men, whose affiliation to the Russian state remains unclear from beginning to end. Locked up in walled stone compounds of a terra incognita pockmarked by violence, they became tragically invisible in the eyes of both the government and the public back home, even after their return 378 days later on the same aircraft. In an interview to the Los Angeles Times, the director ascribes a higher objective to his project of recuperating the notes kept by Vladimir Sharpatov, the captain of the captive crew. Committing the forgotten saga of the “unsung heroes” to screen, Kavun asserts, serves an important function in the new era of diminishing patriotism: it reconnects the audience to the idea of the motherland (Loiko and Stack).
However the film does not lend itself easily to this seamless alignment between source, content, intent, and objective. Encoded within its very fabric is a far more complicated interrogation of the redemptive powers of memorialization. Clad in the big-budget mantle of the Hollywood-ish thriller, featuring iconic male actors, set against exotic locations and people (Morocco standing in for Afghanistan), and enhanced by computer-animated graphics, Kandahar nevertheless seems to dismantle, layer by relentless layer, the very notion of patriotism as unquestioned allegiance to an imagined brotherhood with a shared geography and history. Ironically, the disjuncture is most apparent in its relationship with a foundational narrative shared by the Russian and American national imaginaries: captivity and heroic survival amidst geographical, linguistic, ethno-racial, and cultural Others.
One foot of the film is firmly planted in the rich tradition through which this narrative, first through print culture and later via cinema, has been producing the nation on myriad imperial peripheries for well-nigh two centuries. Kandahar begs to be read as the latest outpost in a continuum of exotic prisons through whose bars authors ranging from Alexander Pushkin to Vladimir Makanin, and auteurs from Vladimir Motyl’ to Sergei Bodrov, have told the tale of Russia lost and found. Yet the very claim of authenticity distinguishing Kavun’s venture—while the Web site obsessively documents correspondences between cinematic and actual locations, characters, and events, the director invokes his close collaboration with Sharpatov, who visited the set several times and “never objected” to the dramatization of his notebook—leaves the other foot dangling over uncharted ideological and aesthetic terrain. The reality of Kandahar, in 1995 as in 2010, is that neither the prisoners nor their prison can be mapped. Unlike the noble savages of the nineteenth-century Caucasus, the captors with their sophisticated equipment and military organization have been thoroughly permeated by the long twentieth century. The captives, correspondingly, bear no responsibility to “represent” the nation-state and are indeed abandoned by it.
Perhaps in spite of itself, therefore, the film fails to deliver a grand narrative of loyalty and identity. At its core instead is a patchwork of petites histoires featuring individuals whose relationships with each other are as fragmented as those with their environment and their captors. As the captives emerge as quintessential postmodern subjects, it becomes evident that their narrative can only be a drama of interiority. Consequently, Hollywood-inspired panoramic landscapes and aerial, computer-enhanced shots of carpet-bombings and civilian decimation take second place to the bulk of the movie, shot with a dry-focused camera that picks out every crevice on the wall and the characters’ faces: men with dubious moral compasses bickering in claustrophobic interiors, and their disjointed encounters with the captors in enclosed courtyards and moving vehicles.
What makes it impossible to dismiss the film as a gimmicky, derivative action thriller is precisely this dominant aesthetic. The high-tech violence, while providing interludes, does not last long enough to detract from the skilled way in which the tedium of each day is interlaced with the open-ended possibility of quotidian brutality using a spare palette of whites, browns, grays, and blues. Visual minimalism corresponds with the silences, rather than verbose dialogue, through which a provisional communicative system is finally established between the captives themselves. Loss of language is also another way in which I believe the film subverts the narrative conventions of the survival tale, as well as its imperial underpinnings. Even though the Afghans’ utterances are not subtitled, a nuanced but heterogeneous network of relationships emerges between the prisoners and their keepers through the nodal figure of the translator Mansur.
This embodiment of translation, who ultimately fails to either interpret violence or prevent it, provides a powerful metonym for pondering the role of film language in the fragmented landscape of late-twentieth and especially twenty-first century warfare. As conflict becomes increasingly covert, distant, deterritorialized, and informal, cinema has become a particularly conducive medium for tracing its contours on the tenuous ground between spectacle and reality, individualized trauma and collective amnesia. Kandahar belongs to a small corpus of recent films which, in a mode reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, have begun to generate a cinematic signifying system for grappling with Afghanistan in contemporary Russian memory. Moreover, unlike the most acclaimed exemplar of this corpus, Fyodor Bondarchuk’s 9th Company, it refuses to be confined to the actual Soviet presence in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1988. Kavun’s film attempts to map the complex, interpenetrating landscapes of ressentiment and repetition between wars past and present.
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Sergei L. Loiko and Megan K. Stack “Q and A with Film Director Andrei Kavun,” Los Angeles Times, 12 February 2010
Kandahar, Russia, 2009
100 mins, color
Director: Andrei Kavun
Script: Andrei Kavun, Oleg Kavun
DoP: Vladimir Bashta
Composer: Darin Sysoev
Production Design: Igor' Shchelokov
Cast: Aleksandr Baluev, Vladimir Mashkov, Iurii Beliaev, Bogdan Beniuk, Aleksandr Golubev, Andrei Panin, Aleksandr Robak
Producer: Il'ia Neretin, Valerii Todorovskii
Andrei Kavun, Kandahar (Kandagar, 2010)
reviewed by Anindita Banerjee © 2010