Film Scouts Diaries

2008 Festroia International Film Festival Diaries
Diary #4: Family Matters, of the Religious Kind

by Henri Bhar

Setubal, Thursday, June 12, 2008 -- Somehow, mid-Festival, the focus of the Official Selection has shifted from kids to families. Is it really just a question of scheduling? Within days, at least three films, from as many different countries, have taken on religion and its impact on the lives of women, in particular. From Jehovah's Witnesses to, dare we say, Allah's, those films also take on religion's social corollaries: fundamentalism, tribal rules, communitarianism.

Unlike most Indian/Pakistani films which, abiding by Bollywood rules, are based on romantic tales and punctuated by dances and songs, Shoaib Mansoor's In the Name of God (Pakistan, in competition) raises a number of controversial issues that affect Muslims worldwide: "Liberal" Islam v. fundamentalism, the awkward situation Pakistanis born and/or educated abroad (read: the West) face when they return home, and the post 9/11 problems most Muslims are confronted with.

Already shown at various Festivals, In the Name of God begins as the story of two brothers, both musicians, born in a well-to-do family of Lahore. The older wants to (try and) pursue a career in music; the younger, Samad, chooses religion, grows a beard, goes to a madrassa.

That story is woven with that of Marry, a girl born to a Pakistani British citizen, who wants to marry a British Christian boy against her father's will. The conservative father whisks her away to a tiny village near the border (read: Taliban-land) and marries her off to Samad. Like all the other women in the village, she is not allowed to leave.

A resourceful young woman whose spirit will not be broken, she ultimately manages to bring the case to court and the film turns into a courtroom drama, with the usual battle of experts, during which the sheikh-in-chief, so to speak, in a Laurence-Olivier-playing-Zeus mode, delivers a long, articulate, definitely enlightened speech on what the Koran says, and does not say.

Clocking in at a good thirty minutes longer than announced in the Festival catalogue (did Festroia get a non-final cut of the film?), In the Name of God is a bit of a mess and the points it makes are at times overworked but at least they are made, and that, considering the context, may have taken a certain courage.

Transpose that tale to Denmark (or, for that matter, to any other Western country), replace "Islam" by "Jehovah's Witnesses" and you get Niels Arden Oplev's Worlds Apart (in competition). In this (mercifully) tighter storyline, the main character, Sara, must come to terms with leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses sect she was raised in (and consequently her family), and a boyfriend she has fallen in love with. The film is structured as a melodrama, it is competently directed, most characters are likable and the acting is convincing. One longs, however, for a little complexity. Certain characters feel rather underdeveloped (the boyfriend is a musician do we know more about him? The father works as a hotel clerk do we know more about his life outside? In both cases, the answer is a resounding no.) And when we visit a Jehovah's Witnesses youth rally (echoes of more sinister rallies from the 1930s on), we get a glimpse of what the film-lurking-from-behind-this-film might have been.

Leaner, meaner, definitely angrier and all the more urgent as Turkey is trying hard to be accepted in the European Community -- Handan Ipeki's Hidden Faces (in competition) deals with honor killings, a centuries-old tribal rite still practiced today in certain communities, the results of which are too often diluted in the "Violence Against Women" statistics.

Start with the showing at a festival of a documentary titled Honor Killings: a Violation of Human Rights. On screen, Zurieh, her face hidden, simply tells what happened to her. As a teenager living in a small village, she fell in love with the local shepherd and had a child from him. To restore the family's honor, her uncle forced her teenage brother to strangle the baby in front of her. She was next in line but her father shot himself instead. The family's honor being still tarnished, the girl's uncle will pursue her relentlessly over the years, killing anyone (read: the moderates) who stands in his way. Somehow, Zurieh has managed to survive. Now a married woman and a mother, living in Istanbul with a new identity, she has decided to come forward and testify, even thought that puts her back in extreme prejudice -- thanks, in a measurable part, to the documentary director's callousness.

If you were under the impression honor killings vanished with the end of the dark ages, think again and check out yesterday's headlines. "Some time ago," recalled director Handan Ipeki in Setubal for the presentation of her film, "two brothers tried to kill their sister in the street. She didn't die and someone took her to the hospital. When they realized she had survived, they went to the hospital and shot her."

She quickly cautions against mixing "religion and ethnic identity with violence against women" and/or singling out this or that community. "Unfortunately," she continues, "it is common to many cultures." The recent annulment of a marriage by a French court, on the grounds that the bride was not a virgin when she married is ample proof of that.

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