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'Return' is an evolving journey

Several years ago, Nelofer Pazira played a poeticized version of herself in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 2001 film ''Kandahar." Her character, a Canadian journalist, returns to her native Afghanistan after receiving a suicidal letter from her sister. There she discovers a land squeezed in the vise of the Taliban. The movie, which was actually filmed in Iran, was based on Pazira's life, and the fictional sister was based on Pazira's best friend from childhood, Dyana, who wrote her a letter in which she intimated that she'd rather be dead.

After the US invasion, Pazira was able to visit her estranged homeland. She wanted to find and rescue her friend and decided to shoot a documentary along the way. ''Return to Kandahar," the frequently strong, hourlong film she made with Paul Jay, finds a country existing in post-Taliban uncertainty. The omnipresence of burkas is not just a dispiriting cultural development but also an impediment to her search: How will she find her friend without having to be rude or invasive? As it turns out, the burkas are just one of several obstacles. Finding Dyana becomes a bureaucratic hassle, too.

As the search continues, Pazira recalls her own fraught history as an Afghani. After the Russian forces left the country in 1989, Pazira's middle-class family fled Kabul for Pakistan and then Ottawa, where she spent some of her teenage years and her adulthood. Dyana and her family remained and suffered.

Pazira proves to be an evocative personal historian. In Mazar, she sees educated, professional families forced to get by as physical laborers. She takes us to her former neighborhood, where she finds that her old school, once so full of books, is now barren. By this point it's clear that the film's theme has shifted, without much resistance, so that the director has become its subject. This doesn't make ''Return" problematic, but it does seem misleading. The search is merely a springboard for Pazira to explore her complicated sense of good fortune as a refugee.

As activism, ''Return" walks a fine line between outrage and a frustrating righteousness. Pazira's been careful to include numerous citizens' insistence that the country needs greater education and no more weapons, but you're never less than fully aware of how easy it is for her to get off the plane and start judging what she sees. Her challenge as a director is to adjust her ''personal betrayal" to fit her country's, which she achieves on a couple of occasions. In the movie's most powerful moment, she stands up to a crowd of men at a university rebuking her for daring to film female students without first getting the men's permission. Her anger is greater than her accusers'.

This is a marked divergence from Pazira's function in Makhmalbaf's movie, where she put forth only a minimal degree of actorly feeling. She gives a better, more responsive ''performance" here, laughing, crying, mixing psychological and historical details with the dexterity of a memoirist.

Ultimately, her detective work buckles under the weight of the deeply personal travel essay it feels like she's making. It's almost understandable that the investigation of her friend's whereabouts starts to seem secondary: Her guilty fear is that she could have been Dyana.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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