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Girls, Interupted

Flick Chick


Published November 12, 2003 at 5:00 p.m.

It has been four decades since Carolyn Russell Stonewell's mother died, suddenly, from an aneurysm. The daughter, who was just a teenager back in December 1963, did not revisit her grief until much later in life, when she underwent Jungian analysis. In the process, she tapped into the relevance of a certain fairy tale.

Seven years ago the Massachusetts-based Stonewell made Once Upon a Loss: A New Look at Cinderella, which screens November 14 at Burlington College with the filmmaker on hand. The 49-minute documentary concerns three other women who were also young when they lost their mothers. These talking heads are juxtaposed with an illustrated and narrated version of the Brothers Grimm classic, which Stonewell sees as a metaphor for finding self-esteem rather than as a simple rags-to-riches saga.

"I thought using this fairy tale in my film might be helpful for other early-bereaved women," she says, adding that the people interviewed had wrenchingly familiar stories to tell. "I went through more grief but also felt a new sense of belonging."

While vacationing in Montreal last winter Stonewell happened to meet Michael Watson, dean of students at the Vermont school. "When she told me about Once Upon a Loss, it sounded like a perfect selection for the Burlington College audience," he recalls. "It combines women's studies, Jungian studies, mythic studies and film studies. Those are our strengths."

Admission to the 7 p.m. Friday program is free, but reservations are required. "It's an intimate space," Watson points out. "On Saturday, Carolyn will show the film again and conduct a daylong workshop about using the arts to address issues of loss. That session is also limited to 20 people and costs $30."

With experience in advertising and playwrighting under her belt, Stonewell spent five years shooting Once Upon a Loss, which earned a Gold Apple Award from the National Educational Film and Video Festival. A Boston Globe critic praised the picture for its "moving and psychologically nuanced portrait" of women forced to mourn at what should be a carefree age. They provide "the brave heart of the film."

Women are equally brave-hearted in Kandahar, scheduled for Nov-ember 12 at 7 p.m. at the Dartmouth Film Society in Hanover. If you can't make it to New Hampshire for this regional theatrical premiere of the 2001 feature -- shot well before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- be sure to rent the video. With improvised dialogue mostly in English, the drama is accessible yet exceedingly mysterious.

Set in Afghanistan during the Taliban era, the story unfolds through the eyes of a Canadian journalist born in Kabul. Nafas, played by an actual Canadian journalist named Nelofer Pazira, slips across the border from Iran in a perilous attempt to stop her sister from committing suicide during a solar eclipse, set to take place in three days. This sibling has lost her legs to a land mine.

Legendary Iranian writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his cinematographer Ebraham Ghafouri give Kandahar, which is subtitled The Sun Behind the Moon, a sense of forlorn beauty. Dressed in a burka to avoid the repressive regime's scrutiny, and chronicling her journey with a portable tape recorder, Nafas treks across the desert landscape of a country that might be mistaken for a medieval fiefdom.

For protection, she leaves Iran posing as the fourth wife of a man who is driving his large family home to Afghanistan in a truck. They turn back when bandits steal all their possessions, and Nafas is on her own again. A black American Muslim doctor (Hassan Tantai) agrees to accompany her part of the way. He is an expatriate who has become disillusioned with Islamic fundamentalism.

In a village madrassa, schoolboys are forced to recite the Koran. One tyke is expelled for not chanting with enough enthusiasm. He hires himself out to Nafas as a guide, but his aggressive behavior soon becomes a liability.

At a refugee camp, Nafas witnesses land-mine amputees scurrying to grab prosthetic limbs that are dropped, with parachutes, from a Red Cross plane. The unspeakable suffering of ordinary people lends urgency to her quest.

Makhmalbaf -- whose daughter Samira is also an accomplished filmmaker -- was inspired by a real-life situation. In 1989 Pazira, the star in a cast of fellow nonprofessionals, had asked him to help rescue her childhood friend in Kandahar. Although this wasn't possible at the time, he later turned truth into fiction to let the world know about Afghanistan's misery and misogyny.