The Prince Of Nothingwood

It seems ripe timing for The Prince of Nothingwood to be released, whilst comedy biopic The Disaster Artist details the making of one of the worst movies ever and the eccentric behind it, The Prince of Nothingwood details the larger than life character and serial filmmaker Salim Shaheen in his native Afghanistan. French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund received up close and personal access to the Afghan ‘Ed Wood’ as he embarks on his 110th and 111th film.

Shaheen brims with character. Slightly portly, he not only directs, but stars and writes his own films, although he does have the aid of someone to write his dialogue but always a motley crue of people to help him. His films are often based on his own life as a child who loved to abscond and sneak into the cinema when forbidden, or stories taken from his days as a soldier. Shaheen has a huge following in Afghanistan but his popularity seemed to have spawned before he was a filmmaker when he was a high ranking soldier tasked with guarding his city. His stories often border into realms of myth, leaving the viewer uncertain what is actual fact and fiction. Whilst his films are beyond schlocky, some were made in the face of extreme adversity of war, with soldiers either being injured or dying; his writer who looks like a roadie dresses so to mask the scars of battle. Shaheen is often eulogising or offering some piece of reflective philosophy, but he can be his own diva, storming off his own set when things don’t go his own way.

Shaheen’s entourage can be just as interesting. One of his regular stars, Qurban Ali, who is a known Afghan TV figure often playing women and trying to challenge the perceptions of what it is to be a woman in Afghanistan. He could be very much the campest man in Afghanistan and his antics when shopping for dress materials may derive several good guffaws. There would probably be enough material from him alone to have his own standalone documentary.

Leaves with questions being left unanswered and just feels it ends abruptly. For all the bravery, tenacity and enthusiasm Shaheen shows, it doesn’t feel overly matched by Kronlund, who is consistently cautious or on screen smoking, which just looks crass. There’s a feeling throughout that perhaps Kronlund didn’t quite know what sort of film she wanted to tell. On the one hand she’s very keen to show the cultural risk Shaheen’s films take in a country that is not just war torn but conservative throughout, in particular it’s treatment to women, which is something that is of a constant concern to Kronlund, as a white female westerner. But she never really seems to ask some very serious questions and to often the tone flips from feeling partially investigative to observationally funny. There’s quite a bit of footage to maybe cast some doubts about Shaheen’s character and his culturally progressive nature but it never draws any proper conclusions. After watching it, you can’t help but feel there is a missed opportunity to make this a straight up comedy doc such as Anvil. The Story of Anvil. Furthermore, it never seems to ask how Shaheen learned to be a filmmaker or how he distributes his films, which is really what the story should be about, a filmmaker in a land where it should be impossible or unimaginable.

★★★

Chris Aitken

On general release from 15th December.