A Killer in "Kandahar?"

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Updated Friday, December 21 Film critics the world over have doffed their hats to the Iranian film "Kandahar," which hit American theaters this month. A scorching portrait of a woman's journey into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to find her sister, its ingenious trick was to cast, in lieu of professional actors, people who had shared experiences with the characters they played: the part of the film's heroine, Nafas, was written for Afghan-Canadian journalist Nelofer Pazira, who journeyed to Afghanistan in 1998 in a failed attempt to reach a suicidal friend trapped in Kandahar. An Afghan schoolteacher was played by an Afghan mullah. Now, in a plot twist that leaves the film even more unsettling, evidence suggests the man cast as an African-American doctor tending to sick Afghan women, whose name is given in the film's credits as Hassan Tantai, is in fact an American-born Muslim who carried out an assassination for Khomeini's regime in 1980 on American soil and fled to Iran, where he lives today.

The film's director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, has stated, "I never ask those who act in my films what they have done before, nor do I follow what they do after I finish shooting my film." But TIME.com has learned that Hassan Tantai is the same man as Hassan Abdul Rahman, an American-born former editor at the state-sponsored English-language newspaper Iran Daily who allegedly fought with the mujehedeen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Further, it appears very likely that Rahman is another name for Daoud Salahuddin, formerly known as David Belfield, who on July 22, 1980, on an assignment from Ayatollah Khomeini's new regime, shot and mortally wounded the anti-Khomeini Iranian political dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabai at his residence in Bethesda, Maryland. Salahuddin, who acknowledged he shot Tabatabai in a 1995 interview with a reporter for the National Security News Agency and soon after discussed the incident with other members of the American media, went to work as a journalist for the Iranian government's news agency shortly after his arrival in Tehran in 1980. He spent much of the mid-to-late-'80s in Afghanistan, fighting Soviet forces alongside mujehedeen fighters.

An Iranian journalist in Tehran says Hassan Abdul Rahman won't confirm or deny he is the man who killed Tabatabai. But Hassan Abdul Rahman, aka Hassan Tantai, bears enough resemblance to U.S. government photos of the young David Belfield to plausibly be his older self, and they share a life story: Both grew up in America, moved to Tehran, pursued a journalism career in the state's official press organs and fought with Afghanistan's mujehedeen.

Furthermore, there are strong indications they are one and the same man in an interview, posted on the Web site iranianfilm.com, that Tantai gave the Iranian film critic Jahanbakhsh Nouraei in May 2001. In it, Tantai says he was born "Fifty years and six months" ago. That means he was born in November, 1950. Belfield was born on November 10, 1950. He also says he came to Iran in 1980, the same year Belfield fled there. Two of his remarks about going to fight in Afghanistan, "My going was connected to my work in a newspaper," and "when I got back to Iran I did write about the situation" suggests a progression similar to Belfield's, who started out working for a newspape, went to fight with the mujehedeen and then went back to journalism (Belfield described that trajectory in his mid-'90s interviews with the Western press).

The interviewer starts off the conversation with the question: "Hassan Tantai is only one of your names. I know that you have had others in different phases of your life. Who are you?"

"I am still trying to figure that out," he says, which is a fitting answer for someone who may have been, in the span of five years, Daoud Salahuddin, Hassan Abdul Rahman and Hassan Tantai. "This is not [an] uncommon phenomenon among Americans of my generation, the '60s generation," he later says. Belfield took his first Muslim name in 1969, having become interested in Islam as a '60s campus radical.

So while there is no hard proof, there is a striking possibility that the person who had a brief career as an actor in "Kandahar" once had a brief career as an Islamist killer in America. What effect that will have on the way audiences perceive the film, which TIME movie critic Richard Corliss rates as the #1 film of 2001 in the magazine's current issue, (which went to press before the evidence about Tantai's identity came to light) depends on how this story continues to unfurl. As yet, there is no indication whether or not Makhmalbaf or anybody else involved in the film knew anything about Rahman/Tantai's past when he was cast; in the interview on iranianfilm.com, Tantai says "The director got wind of a black American in Tehran who had been in Afghanistan," and "when he began to locate people to fill those slots, with respect to the role I play, he did not have many choices." No matter what facts emerge about Makhmalbaf and his casting choice, another layer of intrigue has been placed upon an already mysterious, transfixing film.