‘Afghan Spielberg’ Shaheen is the surprise star of Cannes

The director has made 111 not always good films in a country where simply watching one can get you killed by the Taliban.

Afghan film maker director Salim Shaheen, star of the documentary "Nothingwood" at the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 24, 2017. Nicolas Pratviel / AFP
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CANNES // In the hierarchy of world cinema, Hollywood is at the top. Then comes Bollywood and Nigeria’s Nollywood. And then “way, way below comes us,” says Salim Shaheen, a chubby Afghan actor who is his country’s one-man film industry. “We are Nothingwood.”

Shaheen, who is 51 or 53 — he is not quite sure — is the revelation of this year’s Cannes film festival.

A gonzo director who has made 111 not always good films on a shoestring in a country where watching one can get you killed, he and his endearingly eccentric band of actors are the stars of the festival’s hit documentary.

Nothingwood is a hilarious, touching tribute to Shaheen — possibly the world's most prolific filmmaker, according to The Hollywood Reporter — and to his almost suicidal urge to perform.

He has been dubbed the Afghan Steven S[ielberg, although Shaheen’s commitment to film may be even greater than that of the Oscar-winning director of blockbusters such as Jaws, E.T and Saving Private Ryan. “I would die for cinema,” Shaheen said.

And he means it. He survived a rocket attack on his studio in 1995 in which nine of his actors and crew died, and he and his recklessly brave collaborators regularly dodge minefields and the Taliban to make their action films and melodramas.

“I am stronger than death,” he said. “We Afghans don’t worry about death. It will come, we just don’t know when.”

To say that Cannes has taken Shaheen and his merry men to their hearts is an understatement, with rave reviews and journalists queuing for hours to talk to him — although this may have also something to do with Afghan timekeeping.

A cross between Gerard Depardieu and Steven Seagal, “with his craft clearly inspired by the latter”, Shaheen is revelling in the Cannes circus.

“I cried tears of joy when I found out I was going to Cannes,” he said. “My dream is to come back and compete for the Palme d’Or with one of my own films. I’ll have to make a good one. I have my camera with me here, but it has run out of batteries.”

Shaheen said he was sure his new film will impress the Cannes jury. “I can’t tell you exactly what it’s about in case someone steals the idea. But it’s a story that has never before been told on screen,” he added.

By Hollywood standards, the quality of his films leaves a lot to be desired. Some are made in less than four days.

But Shaheen, who cannot read or write, is adored in his homeland for his courage and humour, and the fact that the little guy always wins in the end.

He even has secret fans among the Taliban, who have outlawed music and movies. In the documentary, a masked fighter admits many watch his films on their mobile phones.

Shaheen acts, directs, produces and sings in his movies, with “live” music on set coming from his mobile phone. Nor is there much need for expensive make-up or special effects, when you can kill a chicken and smear the cast with its blood.

“I have trained 95 per cent of people who make film in Afghanistan,” he said.

The documentary is directed by Frenchwoman Sonia Kronlund, who is herself a character in this breezy but deeply enlightening romp which sheds light on the warm and unexpectedly earthy humour of everyday Afghan life.

Shaheen may be larger than life but it is his leading lady — who, this being Afghanistan, is a man — who nearly steals the show.

The witty and flamboyant Qurban Ali is a kind of agony aunt in an Afghan television show, where he appears in a burqa.

Despite his effeminate nature and flirty banter, Ali has a wife and large family at home.

Shaheen said he believes “cinema should deal with all subjects in Afghanistan even the taboo ones” — and has shot a film about Farkhunda, a girl killed by a mob in Kabul two years ago after being falsely accused of blasphemy.

But Kronlund said Shaheen, whom she described an “incredibly brave man of honour”, is highly traditional himself. “He has two wives. I know them but filming them was out of the question,” said Kronlund. “He didn’t even want me to record their voices. A man can’t show his wife’s face and even saying her first name is inappropriate. He is the chief of his clan and his neighbourhood. Exposing his wife would be a disgrace.”

* Agence France-Presse