"The Suitor" is one of a handful of movies a couple of film-lab employees in Kabul saved in 1996, when the Taliban took over and burned everything not to their fundamentalist liking. (That was when they also blew up those giant Buddhas carved in the mountains.) Even a not-very-good-quality video transfer of the 1969 film, screened as part of the museum's May 8 shorts program, offered a fascinating glimpse into a way of life made distant by time as well as a couple of coups, the 1979 Soviet invasion, the Talibs, and the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The 40-minute film, a sort of tragicomic fable, follows a youthful ne'er-do-well as he schemes to win the hand of a young woman, a college student from an affluent family.
Immediately, it's apparent that this is scarcely the country we know (and not just because the video dub of this black-and-white film erratically sped up voices and action). The men are almost exclusively in Western dress of the time, complete with the protagonist's Ringo-circa-'65 sideburns. The young women wear mini-dresses, and a girl whose father wants to marry her off tells her sister, "It's our duty to fight for our rights against these archaic traditions."
Of course, we shouldn't read too much into the fact that there's not a burka in sight; filmmaker Khaleq A'lil was giving us his version of Kabul, after all, not a documentary. He seems to want to show how -- in spite of night clubs where men mix openly with women to the music of a fancy-attired lounge band complete with female singer -- old ways persist.
Bad values, too: The girl and her sister discuss the false promises of happiness material wealth brings. (That was a nice echo of another short the Warhol showed, "Beirut Outtakes," Peggy Ahwesh's expertly edited assemblage of found-film scraps from a Lebanese movie theater, notable for its ad images of chic young 1960s housewives trolling aisles of gleaming appliances.) And the young anti-hero is left out in the cold when it's discovered that the jewel he offered the girl's father as proof of his family's status proves stolen.
Still, it was hard to watch the film without a double-consciousness, comparing what you were seeing on screen to what we know Afghanistan's become. My viewing companion, a photographer who went to Kabul in 2006, was particularly struck that the city streets in "The Suitor" sported trees -- now nowhere to be found. Yet in terms of gender relations, once couldn't fail to note that even in a Westernizing Kabul of 40 years ago, the suitor in this cautionary tale and the object of his affection never once meet face to face.