The Prince of Nothingwood offers a unique insight into Afghanistan's most prolific filmmaker, a man who has reportedly made over 110 films during the past thirty years. Which would be a remarkable achievement in itself, but to achieve this with almost no budget in a country that has changed as profoundly as Afghanistan during that time, well, that takes a certain type of person...
Salim Shaheen is just that person, an utter force of nature (not entirely a compliment in this instance), we first find him proclaiming that there is Hollywood, Bollywood and then the Afghan version - Nothingwood. Ever present director Sonia Kronlund follows Shaheen around from the relative safety of Kabul to the lawless countryside ('the road is so dangerous, even Sailim takes a plane') as he films his latest opus. At least, I assume that is what it will be, he never really seems sure exactly what it is he is directing.
Shaheen's crew has a weird old family vibe about it. Some of them, such as his long suffering son are actually family, the rest seem to view the almost mythic director as a father figure of some sorts. Actors are script writers are DP's are cameramen are boom operators. Everybody has a role and that is generally whatever Shaheen instructs that they do. The man is such a force that at one stage, having discovered a particularly beautiful area to film, the director co-opts the documentary crew's equipment so he can take the footage later for other movies.
Indeed, it's this dominance from Shaheen that is both the exhilarating driving force of the movie and its achilles heal. Kronlund is very careful to intersperse her movie with scenes grounding the filmmaker's overly robust view of life in Afghanistan but the movie struggles to do the same with the man himself. So we get footage of Kronlund describing her normal security measures being trampled on by Shaheen - something that in this instance only leads to him leaping from the car to help move a older motorist's vehicle out of a pothole - along with footage of horrific bomb attacks that occur during the crew's time in the country. These are a pertinent counterpoint to a man who seems to live a charmed life in the country - a Taliban fighter at one point is filmed admitting that although movies are forbidden, many of his comrades download Shaheen's movies to their phones. However, you are left wondering just what Shaheen (an ex- General in the Afghan army) did over the thirty years in order to assure his safety.
When it comes to Shaheen's private life, things get even more muddy. We visit his house with him where he proclaims across three floors he has his first wife, his second wife and them himself (who he refers to as his third wife). We get to meet his eight sons but it is also revealed in voiceover that his two wives 'did not agree' to being filmed and that his six daughters were 'out'. 'We both know this to be a lie' Kronlund intones, but this is never challenged. A man who seems not to be concerned that the director is a woman and shows no real outward signs of prejudice against her, clearly refuses to let any of the female members of his family take part in the movie. This may be understandable but the movie makes no attempt to challenge this on camera and it leaves a gap in our understanding of the man.
The Prince of Nothinwood is a constantly fascinating view into the sometimes contradictory lifestyle of a genuine one off. Salim Shaheen blusters through his world with the kind of moxy that you cannot help but admire. His resilience over thirty years of movies is nothing short of amazing but there are troubling gaps here in the movie that seem to have been rolled over by the unstoppable force that is Shaheen.