A Kandahar Away is a film that evolves as you watch it. Turning the camera onto her own family, Aisha Jamal’s documentary starts with a dinner. Here, we are introduced to her brothers Shaker and Nasser, sisters Gina and Hasina, mother Amina and father Abdul. Abdul and Amina, refugees from Afghanistan, brought their family to Canada, where they have now settled in Toronto. For the first time in over 10 years, the family plans to take a trip together—to Kandahar, Saskatchewan, where Abdul has bought plots of land for each of his family members.
The film starts as a quirky family vacation. In small-town Saskatchewan, the Jamals are welcomed with sincere, if misguided, kindness and curiosity. A party in their honour serves pork to the Muslim family, while a Saskatchewan native who speaks to Aisha at a dance states “that’s not an English name,” after asking how long she’s been in Canada. These are fumbles without malice, more comedic and awkward than anything else. This is what characterizes the trip to Kandahar: the Jamals are outsiders, not just as Afghan Canadians, but as urban Torontonians in the rural prairies. Dropped into seniors’ dances and community barbeques, the Jamals are nearly as awkward in dealing with the Saskatchewanians as they are with them. This is not to say that the film excuses these instances of ignorance, but that it depicts them with the comedic discomfort the moments elicit.
The energy is absurdist. While Abdul is excited about his plots of land in Kandahar, a hamlet with a population of 15, no one else is. He sees potential: a vacation spot, beautiful landscapes, a place to build a cottage. Abdul is an opinionated dreamer in the face of his realist family, who are honest that they will never come to Kandahar again. But while there is an initially funny family dynamic, the film turns darker. The siblings begin discussing how Abdul’s insistence is not charming, it’s bulldozing. They discuss his neglect, and how narcissistic his perspective can be.
The film then becomes about Abdul’s quest to build a war monument. Brought up while in Kandahar, Abdul wants to use land to build a monument to Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan. Like the first part of the film, this is initially seen as a zany scheme. But back in Toronto, the siblings discuss the problematic political implications of building a monument to Canadian soldiers. At the crux of the film is the clash between family and father. Abdul is a mysterious figure with unknown motives who is steadfast in his ideas. The result is a dispute, which is depicted in a restrained, if tense manner.
A Kandahar Away is a wide-ranging piece. Tonally spanning from light to heavy; geographically from the city to the prairies, with memories of Afghanistan, the odyssey of the Jamals brings the family together through conflict and hardship. Balancing the emotions that come with the intergenerational conflicts of an immigrant family, Jamal’s film is a lucid exploration of Canadian identity.
A Kandahar Away premiered at Hot Docs 2019 and airs on documentary Channel Oct. 22 and 27.