The Prince of Nothingwood review: The strange film king of Afghanistan

Sonia Kronlund’s documentary on the Afghan film-maker Salim Shaheen is full of vibrant personal portraits

The Prince of Nothingwood
    
Director: Sonia Kronlund
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Salim Shaheen, Sonia Kronlund, Farid Mohibi, Qurban Ali, Zaki Entizar
Running Time: 1 hr 26 mins

There are some uneasy qualities to Sonia Kronlund's fascinating documentary on a prolific, no-rent Afghan film-maker. Salim Shaheen's movies are certainly remarkable achievements. Working with minimal budgets and minimal skills, he slings together crazy entertainments in every imaginable genre. Song plays a part. Guns play a larger part. There is a strain of patriotism through much of the work. For all their energy, however, it seems unlikely that anybody from outside his world would find them anything other than ridiculous.

Suspicions arise, thus, that Kronlund may be having some fun with Shaheen. It's one thing for James Franco, in The Disaster Artist, to ridicule Tommy Wiseau's The Room. Wiseau is in Franco's orbit and has exploited his film's badness for his own ends. It's a different matter when you're going among another culture.

Kronlund almost certainly gets away with it. Although a tiny bit repetitive, Prince of Nothingwood – so named because, unlike Hollywood or Bollywood, the Afghan "industry" works without budgets – thrives on the vibrancy of its personal portraits. The relationship between Shaheen and Kronlund is an odd one. Clearly a woman of some sangfroid, she shrugs fatalistically when accompanying him into the mountainous badlands. "If it's so safe why is there a police car following us?" she says. But she does not seem alarmed.

We learn that Shaheen thinks of her as an honorary man (a compliment, perhaps), and their relative closeness allows her to tease out the peculiar details of his past. He was prohibited from watching cinema as a boy. The arrival of the Soviets caused blind chaos. These influences are channelled into a cinema that, for all its roughness, expresses an individual sensibility.


More interesting still is Shaheen’s collaborator Qurban Ali. Relentlessly camp, always the comic foil, the alert, effeminate actor offers a stirring lesson on the art of hiding in plain sight.

A real original.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist