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A journey to hell on Earth

Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, 'Kandahar,' which opens Friday at Cinema 21, is an adaptation of a true story about a woman's attempt to enter Afghanistan to rescue a childhood friend.

In a case of life imitating art, an Afghan woman named Nelofer Pazira approached Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Pazira, whose family had left Afghanistan and settled in Canada, had seen his film 'The Cyclist,' which was one of the first films to depict the plight of Afghan refugees living in Iran.

She asked the director to accompany her as she journeyed back to Kandahar to find her friend, who she feared was about to kill herself because her life under the Taliban had become unbearable.

The director couldn't go with her then, but he contacted her a year later and asked to adapt her story for a film. He also asked Pazira, a journalism student, to play herself in the film.

In 'Kandahar,' the character's name is Nafas, and she speaks in English and Farsi. Nafas must reach Kandahar within three days to save the life of her sister, who plans to commit suicide on the day of the next lunar eclipse.

Nafas goes under the burqa and talks into a hidden tape recorder. Because it's illegal for women to travel alone, to make the trip she relies, alternately, on an Afghan family, a young boy expelled from a religious school, an American doctor and a one-armed man Ñ his limb torn off by a land mine.

No professional actors appear in 'Kandahar,' which was filmed along a smuggler's route on the Iran-Afghanistan border. Many of the players had never seen a movie before, let alone appeared in one.

One unforgettable scene shows a group of men with missing limbs racing across the desert on crutches, heading toward one of the most valuable black market items in Afghanistan: a pair of prosthetic legs airdropped by an international aid organization.

How hell on Earth can also look so beautiful is just one of the uncomfortable questions this important, poetic film raises. (Michaela Bancud)