Daniel Nelson

The Prince of Nothingwood

The Prince of Nothingwood

Image by The Prince of Nothingwood

There's no money, no equipment, only four cinemas. Yet the indefatigable, larger-than-life Shaheen has made more than 110 films, sold as videos and shown on TV. He has made himself The Prince of Nothingwood.

Sonia Kronlund turns the camera on him in order to show an aspect of Afghan life that is not about conflict and destruction. She follows him for an exhausting week, capturing his energy, his ego, his childlike quality, and his ability to pick his way through a cultural minefield that for some of his 30 filmmaking years prohibited the representation of human beings.

He gets away with it because of his drive and his overflowing, contagious enjoyment with what he and his team are doing, because his ebullience is disarming. Some of those he meets are bemused,

a few look unhappy – but, hey, so what? He's a one-off, he's playing, he's showing off, but he's an ok guy, let it go.

Also, he can be smart. After Shaheen has told a crowd that his mother comes from their area, a crew member observes that that wherever Shaheen goes, he tells people he has roots there: “He is a very politic man.” He is apparently illiterate – which may be why he allows actors to improvise dialogue but he skilfully evades questions he doesn't want to deal with, such as his wives, who, in true Afghan tradition, are kept away from the camera. He has even managed to keep on the right side of the Taliban (though he had to flee to Pakistan in 1996) because many of its footsoldiers – who may have enlisted because there's nothing else to do – love his action movies and because he extols the virtues of love of country.

And he keeps his own troops in order. One of his lead actors, Qurban Ali, is outrageously camp and loves playing women's roles. Ali cavorts extravagantly when shopping for a burka in the market, and some of the faces in the inevitable crowd evidently disapprove. After the team has returned to base, Shaheen quietly cautions him about being careful in public. When Ali, filming in a public space, gives a full-on performance as a mother, Shaheen shouts to the crowd, “Great acting” and calls for a round of applause. He knows exactly what Afghans will tolerate and what they won't.

It hasn't all been easy. His brother was killed in war and Shaheen, enrolled as a soldier, tells of how he himself hid among the dead in a Taliban attack. For this film the crew re-live a terrible incident when a rocket landed on a set during filming, killing 10 people and injuring others.

At the height of reign he made about 10 films a year. Now he's down to five a year. But the verve, the boasting, the fun is still there. So are the fights and the weddings, and the stories about the poor beating the rich. “This man has managed to make dreams out of nothing,” says Kronlund.

* The Prince of Nothingwood premieres at the London Film Festival on 13 October and will be screened in British cinemas from 15 December.



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