Nothingwood shines a light on Afghanistan’s oddball daredevil movie star

Filmmaker Sonia Kronlund on documenting a fascinating megalomaniac.

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund in Nothingwood

If Salim Shaheen, the subject of Sonia Kronlund’s Nothingwood, didn’t already exist, few would believe he did. Portly and middle-aged, Shaheen claims to be Afghanistan’s most prolific and famous movie star / producer / director / stuntman / martial artist. Considering the state of the war-torn country’s movie industry, he may be right; after all, Shaheen has produced over 100 films, and people do seem to recognize him when he walks down the streets. The quality of the films is iffy, at best; they’re generally simplistic action affairs starring Shaheen himself and a regular crew of cohorts. His characters often break out into song, lip-synching rather approximately and gyrating loosely to the beat. The dialogue (and plot) is pretty much made up as he goes and shaped by his eccentricities.

These days, Shaheen enjoys a more prosperous lifestyle, even if his films are generally of pretty shoddy quality, authorities are often cracking down on his illegal (and very dangerous) shoots and it’s unclear how he even makes money through the films. (They’re distributed mostly via bootlegs, it seems, and Shaheen has even heard that members of the Taliban watch and enjoy his films.)

“There are a few cinemas in Afghanistan,” says Kronlund. “There are four of them in Kabul, but they’re nowhere near what you and I understand a cinema to be. They’re very popular but somewhat dodgy places where no women are allowed. Kids show up in groups to smoke hash. People eat in there, they walk in and walk out all the time – sometimes they even get up and dance in front of the screen. It has this cabaret feel, this sort of low-down and illicit feel. They play there a little bit, and then people buy them on DVD for a dollar or two. There are three movies per DVD, and they’re fourth, fifth, sixth generation bootlegs that are circulated throughout the country. They’re on TV a little bit as well, and people watch them online.”

In a sense, what Shaheen does is not so different from what Wakaliwood does in Uganda, even if the social context is slightly different. “It’s a thing that comes up all over the world because it gets back to the roots of cinema,” Kronlund explains. “It’s getting back to the sense of play that you tapped into playing with your friends at recess. That’s what I find so touching about this film – why would you even need to make movies when your country is constantly under fire? Why do they still do it? Why do they risk their lives for this, and why do people care enough to see it? I think I know what the answer is – it’s because they see themselves reflected back on the screen. It’s something that represents them. Afghans could go see top Hollywood blockbusters, but they don’t – they go see Shaheen’s movies. Why? That’s the question I wanted to explore.”

Salim Shaheen and Qurban Ali in Nothingwood

It won’t surprise you to learn that Shaheen’s biggest fan is himself, but unlike other talent-challenged idealists like Ed Wood or Tommy Wiseau, it’s never 100 per cent clear how much Shaheen believes his own hype versus how much of it is a survival mechanism of some kind.

“I never really figured it out,” says Kronlund, a seasoned French journalist who first encountered Shaheen in her reporting. “What he says is that he’s the greatest Afghan filmmaker and all these things – he’s very megalomaniacal. There’s stuff I had to cut out – I had 150 hours of rushes for a 90-minute film – I think he really does believe he’s the most… but then again, he’s also the only one! (laughs) But Ed Wood also thought he made great movies. Salim has the same passion for making movies as Wood did – and I think that Salim isn’t particularly interested in the outcome. He’s into the energy and the action of making something. He doesn’t care about editing at all – he doesn’t even show up. He just finds pleasure, I think, in playing. He’s really like a child in that way. He’s playing at cinema.”

Earlier in his career, Shaheen would shoot during actual attacks. Some of his early films even feature the dead bodies of his friends as props. (Kronlund casts some doubt at whether this is true – it’s Shaheen’s word against.. well…) It’s frowned upon for women to act in films in Afghan culture and, though Shaheen sometimes manages to rustle up some women to act in his films, the role usually falls on his frequent collaborator Qurban Ali. Cross-dressing and homosexuality are criminal offences in Afghanistan, but it doesn’t seem to bother Ali, who is Jack McFarland-level effeminate. (He also has a wife and a bunch of kids, mind you.)

“I asked him if he was gay – he said no,” she says. “He said, ‘I’d tell you if I was gay.’ Later, he said something funny. He said, ‘You know, in Afghanistan, there’s a difference between being a homosexual and being gay. Homosexuals just sleep with one guy, gay guys sleep with a bunch of guys.’ (laughs)”

I bring up my interpretation of a scene in which Shaheen throws a tantrum as something from his past and Kronlund just gives me a knowing smile. “The film – my film – is open enough that everyone interprets it differently,” she says. “I know why he leaves that room. But you have to keep in mind, it’s my movie. I’m happy you saw that in it, but when you make documentaries, you’re still telling a story. It’s my point of view on this guy. I don’t think it’s interesting if I tell you what was actually happening in that scene.”

Maybe Shaheen did rub off on her, just a little bit. ■

Nothingwood opens in theatres on Friday, March 23. Watch the trailer here: