The Prince Of Nothingwood review: Forget Hollywood and Bollywood, and prepare for Nothingwood, and Sonia Kronlund’s superb film about Afghan filmmaker Salim Shaheen.
The Prince Of Nothingwood review by Luke Ryan Baldock.
There’s Hollywood, there’s Bollywood, but Afghan director and actor Salim Shaheen is the self-proclaimed ‘Prince of Nothingwood’; Afghanistan’s no budget, and pretty non-existent, film industry. It’s a fascinating portrait presented by documentary filmmaker Sonia Krunland, of a man excelling at what he loves, while also creating a myth around himself. Without a budget, and without studio interference, Shaheen could be one of the purest filmmakers alive today, even if his work does lack in quality in a lot of areas.
The Prince of Nothingwood is a character piece concerning Shaheen. He creates myths around himself and tours with his films to industrial areas. He accepts the cheers from his adoring fans (all men, as women are mostly absent), but also demands more cheers of excitement from them. His machismo is forefront, even declaring Krunland as a man as a sign of respect and why she can navigate more dangerous areas forbidden for Afghan women to enter. His films are almost laughable (if not for their clear passion and sincerity), especially in terms of the roles he gives to himself. Shaheen is not the muscliest or sveltest of men, yet he gives himself roles that would be saved for only Hollywood’s most chiseled and bankable.
Elsewhere the film is an eye-opening look at the country itself, most unexpectedly in a conflicted examination of gender equality and sexuality.
The film opens with a young woman playing a dancing role in one of Shaheen’s movies. She speaks openly about how she is looked down upon and how she has shamed her family, yet her father speaks supportively of his daughter’s choices. Shaheen speaks boisterously and has two wives, yet he also mentions how unfair he finds it for women to marry men they’ve never seen. His treatment of Krunland suggests he sees women as equal, though this may be because she is foreign. It’s hard to know when Shaheen is acting, emphasised when he helps a stuck car, while Krunland cuts to a clip from one of his films in which he lifts a car. Even more interesting is one of Shaheen’s stars Qurban Ali, quite possibly the most effeminate man I’ve ever seen on screen, and being in Afghanistan just makes his character stand out more.
While not making assumptions about one’s sexuality, Ali is camp and flirtatious, and a source of much humour in the all-male environments he frequents. He often takes on the roles of women, including Shaheen’s own mother. Ali shot to fame on television, playing a woman in a burka, who would sing of women’s rights. Krunland’s strength in this character study is to just observe. Whether it’s the personalities of her subjects, or how she is treated herself, Krunland rarely comments on what we are being shown. It allows for an exceptionally unbiased piece of work that encourages us to laugh at and with, in equal measure.
With all the commentary on offer here, most impressive is the passion and joy going into every one of Shaheen’s films. The Prince of Nothingwood is a testament to the power of film, how it can bring happiness and creativity into a world that has been torn apart by war and is still finding its place in the world. With 111 films under his belt, Shaheen is a prolific cauldron of personality and enthusiasm. You may laugh at the sheer lack of quality, but when you meet his cast and crew, including a writer who hides his war-scarred eyes behind sunglasses, you realise that this is a very powerful form of escapism and expression. No doubt Shaheen is a cult director in the making, and this documentary will put his art in context.
The Prince Of Nothingwood review by Luke Ryan Baldock, October 2017.
The Prince Of Nothingwood screens at the 2017 BFI London Film Festival, and will be released in the UK on 15th December 2017.