Dir: Barmak Akram. France-Afghanistan. 2008. 95mins.

What makes this small French-backed Afghan charmer, which premiered in Critics’ Week at Venice, more than just a heartwarming quest comedy is its grounding in the everyday chaos and strict social and religious codes of war-ravaged Kabul. Though honed by script consultant Jean-Claude Carriere, the film does not Westernise its protagonists, and the device of the baby abandoned by a woman in full burka allows it to explore issues of social and gender constraint without preaching.

It’s also a film that casts an ironic eye on the often simplistic and patronising do-good impetus of Western aid agencies - and its the film’s resolutely local viewpoint that should recommend it to sophisticated arthouse audiences worldwide. Like Kandahar, Osama and Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame, French-based Afghani Barmak Akram’s debut feature offers audiences an insider’s window onto a country too often associated with body-count news reports, but for the first time it does so in a bittersweet comedy. French distribution is assured, but Kabuli Kid should surface theatrically in several other territories, and looks likely to clinch a North American deal following its Toronto slot.

Set over 36 hours, the film follows the travails of Khaled (Gul), a self-employed taxi driver scraping a living in Kabul. When a woman clad in a burka leaves a six-month old baby boy in the back of his cab, he is forced to look after it. He tries a police station, but they’ve closed for the evening and the imminent curfew sends Khaled back to his semi-rural suburban house, where we see that despite his western appearance and professed dislike for the veil, he’s no progressive. He has little verbal or physical contact with his wife (Alam), who stays at home to minister to her husband and his gruff father (Sahel), and though Khaled is kind enough to his brood of daughters it is made clear that he feels ashamed at not having produced a son.

Having tried and failed to pull off the same trick of leaving the baby in a collegue’s taxi, the increasingly desperate Khaled comes into contact with two well-meaning French NGO workers who suggest that he should launch an appeal on Radio Kabul, with a cash reward to encourage the mother to come forward. Moments of wry comedy abound - like the curfew password ‘Kabul’, to which the reply is ‘Kalashnikov’. But the fallout from 25 years of war is a constant sombre bassline, with checkpoints everywhere, Chinooks whirring overhead and resentments still simmering among Khaled’s resolutely secular fellow drivers about those who ‘sold out’ to Russians and Taliban in quick succession.

Laurent Fleutot’s unfussily spontaneous handheld photography captures the anarchic energy of life in the Afghan capital, mixing detail-crammed placing shots with more intimate work, as in the lantern-lit interiors of Khaled’s house. And for a first-timer, Akram has a sure command of tone, never letting the comedy get too broad or the political critique too strident, and observing his home town with an infectious mixture of irony and affection.

Production companies
Fidelite Films
Wild Bunch

4 a 4 Productions
Auteurs Associes
Afghan Film

International sales
Wild Bunch
(33) 1 5301 5030

Olivier Debosc
Marc Missonier

Mani Mortazzavi
David Mathieu Mahias
Philippe Gautier

Barmak Akram

Laurent Fleutot

Production design
Mohamed Yousef Ghouchan

Herve de Luze
Pierre Haberer
Elise Fievet

Barmak Akram

Main cast
Hadji Gul
Mohammad Chafi Sahel
Helena Alam
Valery Shatz
Amelie Glenn