Not every country can have a film industry. You need investors, sets, actors, post-production facilities, cinemas and some form of classification regime, so films can be judged as suitable for audiences. You would not expect Afghanistan, a country formerly ruled by the strict Islamic Group called the Taliban between 1996 and 2001 and whose transition to democracy in the years since has been shaken by resurgent Taliban efforts to re-establish a stronghold, to host one.
But Salim Shaheen has done his best to make films in spite of economic and cultural constraints. An ebullient figure who defines such phrases as ‘larger than life’, ‘astoundingly self-confident’ and ‘addicted to filmmaking’, Shaheen has made (it is said) over 100 films, screened informally on DVDs. He is the subject of Sonia Kronlund’s entertaining but unsatisfying documentary, The Prince of Nothingwood, a film that brings Shaheen to his largest audience yet – he is accompanying the documentary on its UK run at selected screenings.
You won’t find anything about Shaheen on imdb (the internet movie database), so that his achievements – even the quality of his work – is unverifiable. You won’t learn from the documentary a list of the films that he has made either. He is something of a local legend in Kabul, an inoffensive charmer, who works within constraints, so in his films, as in Greek and Shakespearean theatre, women are played by men, or else wear masks.
Kronlund, who appears on screen alongside Shaheen, is introduced to his collaborators – including a female impersonator and talk show host, Qurban Ali, surprisingly tolerated – to locations and to watch him at work. With a paucity of acting talent, Shaheen frequently takes the lead role himself as in his most beloved film about a tea seller, which was shot in Pakistan.
Shaheen comes across as an Ed Wood-type figure, driven by speed and quantity – some are made in less than four days – than by quality. His major influence is Bollywood, though with no budget and live music. Kronlund tries to dig deeper, seeking to interview his wives, who are conspicuously absent when she visits his home.
Pretty much all his male family members have appeared in his work – his adult sons recall the parts they played for him – as do local tradesmen. The question of how Shaheen makes a living is never answered. But Kronlund does address how such a cultural anomaly can continue to work: he doesn’t offend anyone, and he puts the army – even Taliban members – in his films, using real munitions; you don’t expect him to have the resources for practical effects. If he needs blood, he uses that of a chicken.
Kronlund’s documentary is fascinating but frustrating. It shows how one man’s resilience can defy socio and economic conditions to do what he wants. Yet we never find out if there are others like him; or what he did before he made films. The quality of his work isn’t great, but Shaheen’s spirit is something else.