It’s now 40 years since the Soviet Union (remember them) “liberated” Afghanistan, and nearly 20 since the US, together with allies such as Germany, started a bombing campaign that is still going on. What with that and the suicide bombers, it’s small wonder that at the beginning of this film Abas, a bus driver, explains that ”Looking back on my life, I’ve had only 10% peace.”
The film starts shortly after a suicide bomber had attacked a local square, killing 80 people. Afshin’s father takes him with his little brother Benjamin to a graveyard for the victims. On each gravestone there is a photo of the men and boys killed, many of them horribly young. One of them was the father’s best friend – the father was very nearly killed himself.
Abas sings a song: ““This is our beloved country; this is Afghanistan, the fatherland of thieves.” He bought the bus a while back and is struggling to get enough passengers to pay off the installment payments. The bus regularly breaks down, and Abas needs to find even more money to pay off a mechanic, who has limited success in fixing the problem.
Afshin and Benjamin’s father, who used to be a soldier fighting the Taliban, has to leave for the country for his own safety, telling Afshin that he’s the man of the household now. Afshin can’t be much older than 12. He spends most of the film dragging Benjamin along to the shops, or watching as his brother plays a complicated counting game among the gravestones.
The film follows Abas, Afshin and Benjamin as they wander around the ghost town of Kabul, which is coloured the grey and dull brown of dust. Sometimes wind whips up the dust, resulting in tiny whirlwinds. As time goes on, snow starts to fall turning the ground a dirty white. There is a bleak beauty in it all. The city seems at its most beautiful when filmed at night when we see bright lights and little of the rubble.
There is no polemic in the film, we just watch things develop with a certain inevitability. Abas sinks into debt and drug dependency, slightly jealous that his wife has a more stable income than his. Afshin and Benjamin are expected to take on adult responsibilities, for which they are clearly unequipped. There is no sense of a way out of this impossible situation.
Who is to blame? Director, Aboozar Amini (35), who fled Afghanistan to the Netherlands as a teenager, says: “back in Kabul, after I lived 20 years in the West, I note that many unsolvable conflicts there stem from the mentality of the Afghani society”. I must say that this idea that the protagonists in the film are somehow indirectly to blame for their own fate is not what I take from the admirable film.
In the film, the only acknowledged threat (apart from the obvious ones of poverty and despair) comes from the suicide bombs of the Taliban. Which is clearly a problem for the inhabitants of Kabul that I would wish on no-one. Yet the Western bombs, which are still falling, and to a degree helped legimitize the Taliban amongst part of the population, are simply airbrushed away, and not even mentioned.
I think that this is a serious criticism, but it is political rather than aesthetic. The fact that I believe that the director ultimately blames the wrong people for the chaos that he portrays does not invalidate the fact that he has shown us an impossible and desperate situation with great finesse. The intimate handheld camera ensures that we are complicit in the experiences that we see.
Kabul, City in the Wind is not a film with lots of car chases. Not much happens, but that is pretty much the point. Life in Afghanistan at the moment is about not much more than survival. It may be convenient for us not to be confronted with this fact, but sometimes we need to be made uncomfortable. This is a film that doesn’t poke its finger at us, but at the same time makes us aware of some home truths that we need to know.