The Prince of Nothingwood first published by Little White Lies
Towards the end of a long excursion to Bayram, a Baghlan Province village in north easterm Afghanistan, director Salim Shaheen takes his guest/documenter Sonia Kronlund on a detour to visit Ali’s Dragon, a rock formation said to be the body of a giant serpent slain by the sword of Imam Ali. When Kronlund asks him, “Do you think it’s a true story,” Shaheen responds hesitantly, “I couldn’t say,” insisting upon the power of storytelling and tradition.
As the maker of more than 100 amateur feature films, this singular, strutting auteur is himself a central figure in Afghanistan’s creation myths, recruiting its landscapes and people to stage inspirational stories where the downtrodden rise and the powerful fall. His films are full of Bollywood-style singing and dancing, fighting, gore and absurdist heroics (typically with Shaheen himself in the lead). He and his team have also been willing to take great risks for their art, shooting scenes amidst rocket attacks and shooting of an altogether more pernicious kind, as one war after another has raged through the nation for decades. A popular, larger than life character, Shaheen is also a great mythologiser of himself, diplomatically claiming that his mother was born in whichever part of the country he happens to be filming, and – as Kronlund makes her documentary on him – shooting two new films simultaneously that chronicle his own early years. In these, he is played by one of his sons – although it is clearly always a struggle for Shaheen to resist stealing the limelight or hogging the camera.
Accordingly, The Prince of Nothingwood comes with a peculiarly involuted dynamic – Kronlund filming Shaheen filming his own story – from which we get a picture of the man and his myth, two inextricably bound aspects of a filmmaker who has always built his fictions upon the foundations – and ruins – of his nation’s realities. In the cinematic spaces that he has created, contradictions and critiques emerge – like Qurban Ali, the actor whose flamboyant campness and penchant for cross-dressing find an acceptable outlet in the name of “just providing some entertainment.” The scene in Shaheen’s film where Ali, in skirt and burqa, plays Shaheen’s mother and laments her son’s vocation as a dancer and an artist comes with an obvious resonance for Qurban himself, giving him a platform to explore the taboo of an identity frowned upon by a distinctly homophobic society. Qurban, incidentally, is married with children, though when asked by Kronlund how many wives he has, laughs a little too hard as he answers: “I have one, and I don’t want any more.” Through the play of Shaheen’s films, Qurban is able to be himself, with public approval.
It is a different matter for women, not allowed to watch Shaheen’s films in cinemas (though able to see them on DVD or one of Afghanistan’s 175 TV stations). To justify the propriety of working alongside Kronlund herself, Shaheeh insists that she is actually a man, ‘Mr Sonia’. Myths like this can – slowly – change the world.
Anticipation: Sounds like 2009’s The Peddler
Enjoyment: A hilariously self-aware take on a frontline cottage industry
In Retrospect: The myth behind the man who is Afghanistan’s biggest film auteur
© Anton Bitel