Prince of Nothingwood, from director Sonia Kronlund, was described to me as a fun and enjoyable look at Salim Shaheen: a bonkers filmmaker in Afghanistan, reminiscent of Ed Wood, who ropes friends and family in to help him make his low-budget films.
And, for the most part, that’s exactly what it was – fun and enjoyable. There was a lot of silliness and hilarity in the defiance shown by him under this oppressive regime. It was fun to see just how adored this man is and how much his films have meant to the people living in Afghanistan. With clips of the film interspersed with the reality you really get a sense of what he’s done for them – and himself – with these films.
However, seeing this world through the eyes of a female director, and in situations where she was often the only woman for miles around, was also really unsettling – a feeling that only worsens as the film goes on.
Specific moments cut through the humour and show the reality of this world where men are men and women are daughters and wives; there to be talked about but rarely heard from. Case in point is the father of one of Shaheen’s actresses informing her in no uncertain terms that she is not to dance in the film (dancing, she later explains to the director, is frowned upon). There’s also the casual way Kronlund explains in a voiceover that she asked to speak to Shaheen’s two wives and daughters and he tells her that the wives have refused and the daughters are not there – and they both know that this is a lie. The comment is left hanging and the viewer is left wondering what life is like for these unseen women in a world surrounded by men, just as Kronlund is for most of the film.
There are also frequent occurrences where Kronlund – after years of experience as a journalist in these war-torn areas – is very conscious of her safety and the many ways she can try to reduce the risk of finding herself under attack. She asks the question ‘Where are we going?’ and the response is usually ‘Ah, don’t worry about it’ or something to that effect. She asks if it’s OK for her – a woman – to go wherever they’re going and he dismisses her concerns as if they’re silly. As if the simple fact of her gender doesn’t put her in huge danger.
Kronlund also reminds the viewer of just where they are by showing actual footage of attack victims. She doesn’t want you to get too comfortable in this fun world of film-making. She wants to remind you of the wider context and therein lies its genius.
Prince of Nothingwood is a fascinating watch and an insightful look behind the curtain into a world many know very little about. The scenery where some of the film was shot is stark and beautiful and amazing to see in this manner: through the eyes of locals.
The film lingers, too. There was a lot to think about, both within the film itself and with the reaction to it from viewers, many of whom seemed to only see the humour.
Of one thing I have no doubt: Kronlund is a bold, fierce and impressive director and I am in awe of what she has achieved here. Though I certainly didn’t dislike the film, I’m not sure I’d recommend it with any level of real enthusiasm. That said, I absolutely cannot wait to see what Kronlund does next.