Director: Sonia Kronlund
London Film Festival review
Afghan actor/director Salim Shaheen is the kind of magnetic figure who’s funny, charismatic and strange enough to carry a whole documentary on the strength of his personality. Of course, it helps that he’s being filmed by a more talented director than himself, French journalist Sonia Kronlund. Her craft and patience has allowed for an entertaining and quietly perceptive depiction of this larger-than-life character, fleshing out his cheap and eccentric version of show business while indicating more implicitly the darker undercurrents to this clownish man’s life.
The term ‘Nothingwood’ is quoted from the ‘Prince’ himself in reference to the underdeveloped state of the Afghan film industry. Fortunately, Shaneen’s almost complete lack of funding inspires a joyous impulsiveness in the man, who films quickly and often with whatever resources are in his vicinity. He’ll use the guns of local soldiers as props and cast his own family in many of his acting roles, though he often seems to reserve the lead part for himself. Based on the clips shown in Kronlund’s film, the cinema of Salim Shaheen is charmingly incompetent. The ridiculous sight of this chubby, middle-aged man fighting bad guys and wooing women amidst terrible special effects invites derisive laughter, but Shaheen’s passion for the medium is unmistakeable.
There’s little doubt that Shaheen is an attention-seeker with a pretty large ego. As a film actor, he likely won’t be winning any major awards anytime soon. Yet, in the outlandish persona of his day-to-day self, he proves to be a restless and commanding performer who almost certainly relished the opportunity granted by Kronlund’s camera to exhibit himself to a wider audience.
But what makes The Prince of Nothingwood more than just a showcase for Shaheen’s endearing goofery is how Kronlund hints at the psychological hang-ups from which this love of filmmaking may have been nurtured, and links this vulnerability in turn to the social, cultural and political tumult of Afghanistan’s history. We see how Shaheen’s childhood trauma is reflected in the autobiographical elements of his cinema, turning campy scenes of an angry mother into surprisingly moving acts of contemplation. Likewise, Kronlund rarely lets us forget the violent backdrop against which many of Shaheen’s films – especially his military dramas – are shot.
Amongst the many amusing and memorable individuals that Kronlund meets on her travels with Shaheen, we notice a prevalent philosophy of fatalism from Afghans who resign themselves to the notion that it is up to God alone who lives and who dies. Given the dangerous lives that many of these people have led – including Shaheen himself, who served in the military – this outlook seems not only understandable, but perhaps even practical. The Prince of Nothingwood reminds us that cinema can hold similar value as a coping device in times of personal and national struggle, and that the best comedy is usually rooted in some form of misery.
Kronlund’s documentary may have benefited from a tighter editing job to really give momentum to these ideas. As it stands, The Prince of Nothingwood is not without its slower patches where it seems to happily cruise on the peculiarities of its world at the expense of the work’s overall impact. Still, with a subject as compulsively watchable as Salim Shaheen, a little padding is nothing to get too saddened by. In the film’s equation of silly vs. sombre, the former tends to dominate, which is why The Prince of Nothingwood can’t quite be counted as the artful heavyweight it might’ve been but also why it’s such a refreshingly fun glimpse of a side of Afghan culture that we rarely get to see.
The Prince of Nothingwood screened as part of the London Film Festival 2017.