By CLAR NI CHONGHAILE
CANNES, France (AP) May 15 -- The disembodied hand shoots out from behind the folds of cloth, takes the lipstick and disappears. Somewhere behind the voluminous veil, an Afghan woman is putting on her makeup.
It's one of the scenes from Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's ''Kandahar'' -- a beautifully shot, desolate film that has brought the trauma of life under Afghanistan's Taliban regime to Cannes.
Shot on the dangerous, drought-baked border between Afghanistan and Iran, the film stars Niloufar Pazira, an Afghan refugee who now lives in Canada.
Pazira is not an actress, and for her, ''Kandahar'' is more than a film -- it is a cry for help for the millions of women who were not as lucky as she was and who still live faceless lives in Afghanistan.
''I wanted to do the film because it was my life story. It is the story of every Afghan woman imprisoned behind a veil and deprived of her rights,'' Pazira told reporters. ''Discovering, each day, a new side of the misery was quite devastating.''
Pazira plays Nafas, a refugee in Canada who returns to her homeland after she receives a letter from her sister saying she has decided to kill herself during the next eclipse of the sun.
The story is based on a real event. Pazira, who left Afghanistan in 1989, received such a letter from a friend, and approached Makhmalbaf to film her attempt to return.
But going home and filming in Afghanistan proved to be impossible, so the film was shot on the border, with parts played by Afghan refugees.
Makhmalbaf, whose daughter, Samira, won a jury prize for ''Blackboards'' in Cannes last year, paints a poignant but ultimately depressing picture of life for Afghanistan's ''black heads'' -- the local phrase for women.
''It's not easy to talk about a country where there are no images, no television, no cinema,'' Makhmalbaf says.
The Taliban religious militia, which imposes a harsh brand of Islam, captured Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, in 1996 and now controls around 95 percent of the country.
They have stopped women from working, closed schools for girls older than 8, and forced women to wear the burqa and men to wear untrimmed beards and head coverings. Photographs, movies, television and music are banned.
Despite its bleak setting, Makhmalbaf's film is not without humor, although of a black kind.
At one point, Nafas finds herself in a Red Cross camp for people who have lost limbs to the thousands of mines planted across the country. One man, who has lost an arm, begs the nurses for some artificial legs -- bare steel posts with a wooden clog-like foot. He then tries to sell them to Nafas and her guide, arguing, ''The fields are mined. You should have a spare pair.''
Makhmalbaf sneaked across the border and stayed in Afghanistan for a week to research the film. He grew a beard and wore traditional garb but still narrowly escaped kidnapping.
While filming, the crew met distraught, starving refugees every day, and repeatedly stopped filming to help them.
''I will never forget the image of a 12-year-old girl we found. We kept trying to stand her up and she kept falling down. We took her to hospital and they said she was dying of hunger,'' Pazira said.
Because she could not get into Afghanistan, Pazira still does not know what has happened to her friend, whose letter inspired her effort to return home.
''I grew up with her as a child and said goodbye when I left Afghanistan,'' she said.