The phrase “Do you know who I am?” takes on a new meaning in Sonia Kronlund’s The Prince of Nothingwood, an idiosyncratic documentary revealing an unseen side to Afghan life and culture.
For though a global audience may have little prior knowledge of prolific B-movie filmmaker Salim Shaheen, every man and his dog in the director’s home nation sees this larger-than-life character as a household name. Dressed in a black suit and cream turtleneck, we witness him hold an assembled audience in his hand in opening moments. Here we have a figure somewhere between Ron Burgundy and a circus ringmaster; it’s immediately apparent that he will be running proceedings hereafter.
Worshipped by all as a champion of a country too often seen by the outside as no more than a perennial conflict zone, “I risk my life for cinema,” says he. Reclining sipping chai among long-time friends and cinematic collaborators who have all suffered injury and loss in filming alongside Shaheen – from the brutal civil war onwards – they see him as a hero and film as a distraction to transport the people of their beloved country away from the woes and anguish of bloodshed.
Proving to be an affable, but mercurial and rather domineering documentary subject, Shaheen’s many years of storytelling begin to creep into Kronlund’s attempted burrowing into his own life. Going on the road with him and his crew, we soon see that we are watching a recreation of the many dramatic chapters in a life lived to the fullest. However, with each new community met Shaheen makes claims of multiple hometowns – he would make a superb politician – and we begin to doubt the veracity of all we are told.
How much of his own past, passed off as autobiography, is exaggerated artifice, embellished for the big screen? It’s unclear. Perhaps knowing that she would be stonewalled were she to press too hard on certain issues, Kronlund observes, comments and asks tentative questions on the absence of Shaheen’s wives and daughters from proceedings but is left wanting on this and a number of other issues, and so are we to some extent.
Amid the ludicrous fight sequences, epic songs and wooden dialogue, inserts from Kronlund on the summary killings, suicide bombings and US air raids simultaneous occurring elsewhere pierce the bubble of detached show-business and ask whether cinema as pure entertainment is in some way irresponsible. With that said, Shaheen’s patriotism cannot be faulted and although we question what he would be like when not in front of the camera or a baying public, his belief that “We draw inspiration in cinema to help us in life,” rings true for all and justly garners the royal adulation he deserves.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens