The prince of nothingwood
review by matthew roche
Let me start off by saying that I am infinitely relieved that this movie had English subtitles. Why on earth did I agree to review a movie that had an Arabic trailer paired with French subtitles? Well, I thought a week might be enough to learn at least one language. More plausibly, I could review it just from the cinematography and the slapstick.
Salim Shaheen is a real Afghan director who works on no budget with no resources (not Hollywood, not Bollywood but Nothingwood). It steps close to being absurd so many times that I thought these couldn’t possibly be people that exist in our world. I classed it as a boring mockumentary from the beginning.
However, finding out it was a documentary shifted my perspective entirely. Just knowing that Salim is a real person, plasters a smile on my face. I was thrown off the scent by how horribly atrocious and hilarious the movies he made are. The documentary is interspersed with different scenes from his films that are all equally ludicrous (and the highlight of the movie). For example, as he helps push a car that’s gotten stuck, it will cut to him in his movie lifting a car to prevent it from driving away.
The personalities in this movie were so bright and loud that it was incredibly satisfying to see them interact on and off camera. There was just such a sense of closeness in each aspect of this movie. Whether it’s Shaheem telling the people in his newest filming location how happy he is to see them and how his mother lived there (he has a lot of mothers apparently) or whether it’s hearing from different people about how much his movies meant to them. Their reactions to his movies at the start seemed so comical that it just couldn’t possibly be genuine but you learn that these movies give hope. They show that better things can come from the situations that seem to trap them.
What I thought was a clever movie technique was actually just wonderful timing. They got Shaheem to agree on doing a documentary for his 110th movie which also happened to be his autobiographical movie. It’s the perfect way to drip feed the audience his backstory and explain why he is how he is. My criticisms fell away when I realised it was a documentary. I had problems with the ending being anticlimactic but they couldn’t really engineer something fake for a story that wasn’t fictional. A glaring problem that remained after the perspective change was the slow pacing. I can see that it might be hard to “move something along” when it’s slowly being revealed by the “main character” but there was a severe lack of interesting content in the middle that almost made me walk away from the movie.
Overall, this documentary presents the audience with a chance to shadow the Afghan Steven Spielberg and his almost suicidal urge to create movies. The documentary also shows some terrifying situations playing out in Afghanistan with a strong focus on the role of women and how stifling and oppressive it is. Despite all this, the filmmakers seem to operate in a bubble, impervious to everything and committed to making movies with all the power they have. It’s gritty, at times wholesome and, like any great documentary, it compels you to wonder how in the world people like Salim and his crew exist. You just can’t stop a smile forming.