Film about life under Taliban is a surprise hit

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The Independent Culture

With such blockbuster competitors as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and The Lord of the Rings, few would give a low-budget film about the Taliban made by an Iranian and starring an Afghan a chance in the box-office war.

But in a tide of post-11 September political consciousness, Kandahar, the tale of a young woman's journey into the heart of Mullah Omar's regime, has become not only a must-see for the cognoscenti but also a commercial hit.

Critics praised the filmlast year at Cannes but initially it struggled to gain audiences. It has already received a special command viewing by President George Bush in the White House, but it is among the public that Kandahar, directed by the acclaimed Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf and starring 28-year-old Nelofer Pazira, is proving to be the biggest draw.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in central London, where the film has been showing for three weeks, said every screening had sold out. The average take for the film in its first fortnight has been £16,000, surpassing the £11,000 per screen made by Harry Potter in its first week and the £7,000 in its second week.

Such has been the demand for Kandahar in the capital that the ICA has ordered five further prints of the film to allow it to be shown in 29 towns and cities, from Aberdeen to Falmouth.

An ICA spokeswoman said: "It is a beautiful and haunting film which could not have been released at a more suitable time."

Kandahar is based on the real-life experience of Pazira, a 28-year-old whose family fled Kabul in 1989 for Canada, where she was contacted by a friend, Dyana. Pazira tried to return to Afghanistan after Dyana wrote, saying she was on the point of suicide because of the Taliban regime. But Pazira, then a film student, was turned away at the Iranian border.

Instead, she met Makhmalbaf who persuaded her to tell her story on celluloid – recreating the privations and excesses of Afghanistan's rulers through the eyes of a series of guides on her journey.

For a country whose only mainstream cinematic representation was in Rambo III, Afghanistan is at last benefiting from the power of cinema.

A spokeswoman for the British Council of Muslims said: "There has been a general upsurge of interest in Islam and Afghanistan – our website has seen a 300 per cent increase in the number of visits. But a film like Kandahar is even more important. There is a thirst for information and this comes from a very different and frank source. It is a powerful film in all senses."

The film starts its nationwide tour in Oxford this week.

Sources confirmed this weekend that Cherie Blair had requested a copy – raising the possibility of the Blairs taking to the prime ministerial sofa to view the haunting images of Taliban brutality, in what has been described as the "most politically important film in the world".