Oh God, I am a hypocrite. I am now going to talk about an Iranian movie in almost exclusively political terms. In my defense, the film in question—Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 2001 movie Kandahar—is an overtly political film, unlike A Separation or any number of Kiarostami features. Of all the Iranian movies I’ve seen, Kandahar is perhaps the only one that I found highly problematical from a political/ethical point of view. Allow me to elaborate.
Kandahar is the story of an Afghan-Canadian woman returning to Afghanistan via Iran in order to rescue her sister, who has sent her a message saying that she intends to commit suicide in Kandahar during an upcoming solar eclipse. The dialogue in Kandahar is a mix of Persian/Dari (the language of western Afghanistan) and English, and it must be said that the English-speakers in this film are terrible actors. Or perhaps Makhmalbaf has just given them deeply unnatural lines to say. It’s probably a combination thereof. This is yet another example (and we’ve discussed them in previous posts) of a woefully misguided director trying to make a film in English rather than his or her native language for some reason. So the acting isn’t particularly good, but the movie has other pleasures: the premise has a mythical quality to it that makes it engaging, the visuals are beautiful and striking (as we have come to expect from Makhmalbaf), and the film provides a rare cinematic depiction of life in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (Kandahar, as far as I can tell, was filmed largely around Afghan refugee camps in Eastern Iran, although Makhmalbaf claims that some of it was filmed covertly in Afghanistan proper).
Now let’s move along to the problematical piece. As our Canadian protagonist, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan-Canadian filmmaker upon whom the events in this film are partly based) travels from Iran into Afghanistan, she meets a variety of people along the way, from each of whom she tries to seek help in reaching Kandahar. At one point, she meets an African-American doctor name of Tabib Sahid (credited as Hassan Tantai, but more on this later) who tries to assist her and with whom she discusses the Afghan situation in painfully awkward English. Now, “Tantai” isn’t a good actor, but I was nonetheless struck by his very presence in this film; “How,” I wondered, “did an American end up in an Iranian movie? Especially one who doesn’t seem to be a professional actor (or at least a good actor)?” I resolved to Wiki him after the film was over.
The rest of the film isn’t relevant to our discussion here, so let’s jump to what I found on Wikipedia. Hassan Tantai is the alias of Dawud Salahuddin, who was born David Theodore Belfield in North Carolina in 1950. In 1968, he converted to Islam and took the name Dawud Salahuddin. In 1980, he fucking murdered an Iranian exile in Maryland. The reason Salahuddin ended up in Iran (and, by extension, an Iranian movie) is because he carried out a targeted assassination on behalf of the Iranian government. Well, now I didn’t feel so comfortable about watching him in Kandahar.
What were the circumstances that led to Salahuddin to kill the dissident Ali Akhbar Tabatabai in Bethesda, Maryland in 1980? Let’s go back to his childhood (go back to Linz, as W. H. Auden instructed us). Salahuddin, then Belfield, was an African-American deeply scarred by American institutional racism. According to the Wiki, he says that as a child he felt it “an indecency, an insufficiency, certainly a shame not to be white.” When he saw news coverage of the violence perpetrated by Southern lawmen against civil rights activists, he says that he developed “an implacable hatred towards all symbols of American authority.” Now, thus far, I feel like I can hardly blame him for feeling like this. Racism doesn’t just do violence to a person’s body, nor does it just impede their range of opportunities in life, but it inflicts deep and terrible scars upon the person’s psyche. Believing Islam to be “color-blind,” he converted during his attendance at Howard University, having become involved with an Iranian student center there. Throughout the seventies, he proselytized for Islam and cultivated a bitter anti-American militancy. It was in 1980, when he became a security guard at an Iranian diplomatic mission, that he became involved with the Iranian government, and they gave him his first mission to conduct in service of their cause (this was just after the Islamic revolution in Iran).
They ordered him to kill Ali Akhbar Tabatabai, former press attaché at the Iranian embassy during the reign of Shah Pahlavi. Following the revolution, Tabatabai remained in the United States and became the director of an anti-Khomeini group called the Iranian Freedom Center. Salahuddin arrived at Tabatabai’s house on July 22, 1980, disguised as a mailman. Salahuddin shot the Iranian to death and then fled the country, eventually arriving in Iran, which would become his main place of residence for the rest of his life (he allegedly travelled to Afghanistan at some point in the ‘80’s to fight the Soviets). And so this is how he ended up in Makhmalbaf’s movie; much like Richard Jenkins and the three other American defectors to North Korea, who proved quite useful when evil Americans were needed for North Korean movies, Salahuddin proved useful to Makhmalbaf.
Now, so far, so horrible. I don’t care what Tabatabai did (and as press attaché, he may very well have acted unethically in propagandizing on behalf of the Shah’s brutally oppressive government), but you can’t go running around shooting people (probably shouldn’t even have to say that, but there it is). Over the doorway in the Minnesota State Supreme Courthouse, it says in Latin, “Where law ends, tyranny begins.” If Tabatabai was really a criminal, he should have been put on trial. Killing him was criminal in its own right, especially when done on behalf of a government whose crimes are just as horrific as those its predecessor. Two further questions: (A) Does a diplomat necessarily represent his government, or does he represent the interests of his compatriots? After all, Octavio Paz was in the Mexican diplomatic service when the Tlatelolco Massacre took place, but that didn’t make him complicit in the massacre. (B) Did the Iranian government kill Tabatabai because of his association with the Pahlavi regime, or because of his association with the anti-Khomeini Iranian Freedom Center? I suspect it was the latter, in which case the killing is even more abhorrent.
So when Kandahar came out, there was understandably a big to-do in the press about Makhmalbaf casting a confessed murderer in the film. How could he justify doing such a thing? Here’s what he said, according to The Guardian: “While I categorically denounce any kind of violence, I cannot condemn his past actions, which were predicated on his past convictions, on the basis of other people's present beliefs.” Oh, bullshit. There’s nothing inherently meritorious about acting on your convictions. Skinheads have convictions; that doesn’t mean they’re not horrible. Makhmalbaf further describes Salahuddin as “a superior human being.”
So my question is: Is it ethical to watch (or pay for) Kandahar when you know that a murderer played a prominent role in its production? And this is a murderer, mind you, who was never brought to justice for his crime. Now, I’m all for separating art from the personal conduct of the people who make it, but I always find it easier to do this when the unethical artist in question is dead. For instance, did John Lennon beat women? Yes, yes he did. Does that make his music any less good? No it does not. Furthermore, John Lennon is dead, so my consumption of his music doesn’t benefit him in anyway. Salahuddin, by contrast, is still alive. I don’t have an unambiguous answer to this, but you, the reader, are welcome to opine. You see at the bottom of the text where it says comment? If you click on that, it allows you to leave a comment. So I would be ever so grateful if you were to do so.