PRINCE OF NOTHINGWOOD: The Man, The Myth, The Madness
Prince of Nothingwood documents Salim Shaheen, a passionate Afghan director who makes dozens of low-budget films in his troubled home country, becoming idolized by many as a result.
‘Stop being scared! Fear nothing but God’ yells Afghan director Salim Shaheen whilst brandishing a Kalashnikov at the foot of a mountain range. He is demonstrating how one would set the gun up for single bullet fire or multiple rounds. A group of men laugh as Shaheen mimes shooting them – it’s a joke. As Sonia Kronlund, director of Prince of Nothingwood, looks on smoking a cigarette – I can see why she might be a tiny bit scared.
Prince of Nothingwood brings together two polar opposites; eccentric film director Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund, an observer of the madness and magic which Shaheen invokes.
A bizarre and brilliant man, Salim Shaheen is one of Afghanistan’s most prolific directors. Shooting on handheld cameras with a small crew (mainly consisting of his relatives), with a tight-knit cast of actors, Shaheen sets about creating his 109th movie. There is a method amongst the madness (which usually consists of Shaheen yelling ‘camera’ and various swear words at his team) and the energy he exudes is intoxifying. It’s easy to see why he is loved by many – he’s energetic, idealistic and totally passionate about cinema.
Prince of Nothingwood sees French documentary director Kronlund following Shaheen embarking on a new movie project which takes the team to remote villages, abandoned buildings, an actual minefield (!) and many other weird and wonderful locations.
One of the scenes Shaheen is shooting involves his actor and best friend, Qurban Ali, riding a small donkey to a village to propose to a woman there. Shaheen explains to Kronlund that the donkey does not know how to walk properly, but that the final shot is ‘interesting’. So he shoots it anyway.
Much of his filmmaking stems from these moments of interest, rather than premeditated decisions. The crew, with Kronlund, drive up to the foot of the Afghan mountains and discover some unique waterfalls and rock formations. It’s very unclear if Shaheen knew these existed, but he is ecstatic about them and insists that this will be the backdrop for the film he is making.
They shoot repeatedly, in a seemingly nonsensical order, with Shaheen shouting instructions to the camera operator (his son) and his actors. He often goes from calm to aggressive and angry within seconds, emulating the stereotype of the ‘mad genius’. At times, it’s almost unsettling just how angry he is at the team – at one point he storms off and Kronlund asks what they should do about it. ‘Just wait’, is the answer, ‘he will come back’. He does, after a while, with a smile on his face.
It becomes evident that nothing can be predicted in Prince of Nothingwood – Shaheen always has a surprise up his sleeve, and Kronlund captures this beautifully. Though he has a temper, Kronlund allows us to see Shaheen’s humanity, his pain and his vision – making him a completely relatable character.
Fearless Man and Fearful Woman
Though perhaps Kronlund set out to make a film about an eccentric giant of filmmaking, Prince of Nothingwood ends up being much more focused on the relationship between the two directors, and is better for it.
The two have a common interest, cinema, and their shared connection gives way to an understanding between them. Though very, very different personalities, there is a clear bond between Kronlund and Shaheen which is enjoyable to watch unfold. Shaheen explains to her that he is ‘the fearless man’ and she ‘the fearful woman’, which is a perfect summary. As they drive around small towns where armed military roam the streets, Kronlund persistently asks Shaheen if it’s safe to be here. Shaheen laughs – he is not scared by anything, unmoved by situations others may find frightening. It’s a brilliant double act.
Kronlund and Shaheen, by being themselves, create a beautiful onscreen dynamic. Shaheen, bold and fierce – assertive with his country and his infallibility. He is the subject of Prince of Nothingwood and has no qualms with being centre stage. Kronlund is often found to the side of the frame, asking questions quietly or objecting to what is going on around her.
Though she is an observer for most of the film, her interactions with Shaheen provide unparalleled comedic moments. Make no mistake, Prince of Nothingwood is a genuinely funny film – the humour coming predominantly from the personalities of its characters.
For all the humour and quirks, Prince of Nothingwood is also a film which sheds some light on the politics of filmmaking in Afghanistan. It’s a far more serious subject matter, but one which is never far from Kronlund’s camera as they travel to remote regions of Afghanistan.
Later in the film, Shaheen explains that he spent time in the military and has witnessed many traumatic events in his life associated with war and terrorism. He goes on to talk about how he survived an attack during his time as soldier by pretending to be dead among the bodies of his peers.
This scene is later written into one of his films, and Kronlund films Shaheen directing his actors on how to play dead. It is clear that all of Shaheen’s films are of an autobiographical nature, which goes a long way to explaining why is so revered by his fans. His stories, often about war, poverty, and violence, are tales of the triumphant underdog. He tries, and evidently succeeds, in giving a voice to those in Afghanistan who have none.
Conclusion: Prince of Nothingwood
A true cinephile, and a man prepared to risk his life for movies, the self-titled Prince of Nothingwood Shaheen is an engaging person. Towards the beginning of the film, he explains that ‘in America, they have Hollywood. Here we have nothing. So I am the Prince of Nothingwood’.
The film is full of Shaheen’s funny one-liners like this, but it’s also full of pain and suffering. Behind the joy and laughter of the crew are people who have experienced terror unimaginable by most. Salim Shaheen uses this in his films to try and heal himself and his country. Prince of Nothingwood is not only a portrait of a unique man, but of the importance of cinema too.
Did you enjoy Prince of Nothingwood? How do you think it compares to other biopics?
Prince of Nothingwood is out in selected UK cinemas now.
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