The Prince Of Nothingwood

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Nothingwood
"Even if the facts are fiction, you still get the sense of a man who is driven, at least in part, by an urge to bring some sort of happiness by shooting film rather than bullets."

It's fair to say that the word "upbeat" is rarely found in the same sentence as the words "Afghanistan" and "documentary" these days, with the turbulent politics and conflict taking up most of filmmakers' attention for the past couple of decades. The Prince Of Nothingwood, while featuring the ever-present problems that are ongoing in the country, bucks the trend to tell the story of an unlikely filmmaker and is laced with a surprising amount of optimism.

How much of the biography Salim Shaheen tells documentarian Sonia Kronlund is truth and how much the self-spun myth of a prolific storyteller is debatable but his abilities as a showman are hard to dispute. With 110 films notched up across 30 years and, as Kronlund follows him, in the business of his 111th, Shaheen refuses to let a little local difficulty such as, er, war, roadside bombs and the Taliban come between him and his camera.

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Intercutting her film with footage from Shaheen's back catalogue - featuring him in the sort of action hero roles that recall 70s TV, like Lee Majors with all the slo-mo and none of the bionic bits - Kronlund tries to dig about for the truth behind the man. He's certainly not a conventional hero, with his Peter Kay tubbiness and age, but it becomes apparent it is exactly part of his charm for the viewers we see raptly drinking in his latest film. His movies are, for the male populace at least, a means of escape from the grind into stories where the everyman comes out on top.

The filmmaker ends up in a kind of sparky double-act with Shaheen, she, the self-declared "fearful woman", fretting about whether they might get blown up on location, he the "fearless man", repeatedly telling her not to be scared of dying.

The picture that emerges regarding the whys and wherefores of his life is loose, at best. For example, he tells adoring crowds his mother was born in the region, only for one of his colleagues to tell Kronlund later that he has 'mothers' all over the place. Yet, even if the facts are fiction, you still get the sense of a man who is driven, at least in part, by an urge to bring some sort of happiness by shooting film rather than bullets.

The sexual politics also prove complex, as Kronlund talks to a young woman who features, albeit in a mask as , in Shaheen's films and later speaks to the wife and family of one of his larger-than-life co-stars Qurban Ali. Ali - who takes on almost all the female roles in Shaheen's films - has a camp repartee to rival Julian Clary. "Who cares about the sky?" he tells a cameraman, in a bid to become the focus, "the sky is everywhere". He, like Shaheen and the young woman in the mask, is flouting rules in his own way and showing that, wherever there is an envelope, there are those who will be willing to take a risk and give the edge of it a push.

Reviewed on: 15 Dec 2017
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The story of Salim Shaheen, the most prolific and popular actor-director-producer in Afghanistan.

Director: Sonia Kronlund

Starring: Salim Shaheen

Year: 2017

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: France, Germany


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