Cyrus Nowrasteh film The Stoning of Soraya M.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a moving and beautifully told story of injustice against women, nor one that was so difficult to watch that at one point I had a hard time refraining from vomiting along with the other women in the film, through a flood of tears and sobs and pain at the rendering on the screen.  The film, The Stoning of Soraya M., contains a lengthy, protracted, gruesome and difficult to watch scene of the stoning of Soraya—so gruesome that in fact women in the crowd of villagers start to vomit at the violence being done, and our grief and visceral reaction, or at least mine, mirrors theirs at watching one of their own being so slowly and painfully beaten to death with small stones.  For it is part of the law that the stones not be so large that death is instantaneous, nor so small that the accused is not harmed—but they must be the right size to inflict pain and suffering for an eventual death.  So this is a movie that requires fortitude to watch and remember, because it stays with you for days, not just because it is so well made and realistic, nor just because it is an adaptation of a true story of Soraya Manutchehri unjustly accused of adultery and then stoned to death in 1986 whose story was released in a 1994 book the film is adapted from, but because it is a story that hasn’t seen its end since according to Amnesty International and news stories the practice of stoning to death still occurs in the world (  Furthermore, the status of women remains problematic in so many places and ways, everywhere in the world, that this tale of one woman’s unjust treatment by her husband, village and society is very poignant in itself, not to mention the heightened distress caused by the stoning outcome to the story.

Overall the film is exceptionally well-made, with superb photography and mise-en-scene, fantastic musical score by John Debney, realistic costumes, setting and décor, terrific acting that shifts between Farsi with subtitles and English, but I hesitated at first to write about this film–even though it is important–because it is hard to consider it a “foreign” film although the dialogue shifts between Farsi and English, the setting is supposed to be in Iran, the story is Iranian, while really the director/co-writer (Cyrus Nowrasteh, co-writer with wife) and many of the actors are Iranian-American, most of the beginning credits crew is western, one of the leads is American (Caviezel) and the producers are western.  The story and theme are Iran-focused, but not by Iranian based filmmakers.  Of course the story could not be told from Iran and in fact the film is banned in Iran—probably because of the controversial subject matter and that women often show their uncovered heads—though it purportedly shows there underground in pirated dvds.  But several elements of culture are well-represented in the film, so it deserves to be discussed.

There are some excellent blogs and writing about the film, including a film website:

The film was the runner-up for the Audience Award at the Toronto 2008 Film Festival, won the “Justice” award from the Berlin Film Festival’s “Cinema for Peace Awards” and also won The Audience Choice Award at The Los Angeles Film Festival and garnered The Critics Choice Award from The Broadcast Critics Film Association ( The film’s theatrical Release Date was 06/26/2009 and the DVD Release Date was 03/09/2010, and the film is available on the web, and from Netflix streaming and purchase from, etc.

The basic story is that a French-Iranian journalist (the author of the book, Freidoune Sahebjam, played by James Caviezel) comes to the small Iranian village called Kupayeh, the journalist’s car having broken down and he forced to spend the day in the village waiting for its repair.  He is approached by an older woman who confides that the men in the village have done a terrible thing, but she is prevented from telling her story due to the arrival of the village mullah and mayor who say she is just a crazy old woman.  Later, the journalist is lured to Zahra Khanum’s (Shohreh Aghdashloo) house where she is able to tell her story and Sahebjam records it.  Strangely, Zahra speaks fluent English, as does the journalist.  She speaks to the journalist in English, whereas the rest of the story told in flashback is in Farsi with subtitles, or the journalist speaks accented Farsi with the mechanic, mayor, mullah.  Her story, then, is the story of Soraya Manutchehri (Mozhan Marno) from the moment she is propositioned by the village mullah who informs her of her husband’s wish to divorce, to her stoning and secret burial by the river by the village women—a period of a couple of weeks at most.  In fact, the film opens with Zahra chasing a dog away from some bones by the river, washing and then reburying them tenderly.  We don’t know whose bones they are yet.  We only learn at the end of the story that the women have secretly buried Soraya there.

 In the case of Soraya, her accusation of adultery is shown to be bogus, a trumped up charge by her husband Ali (Navid Nagahban) who has already tried to get rid of her so he can marry a 14-year-old girl in the town where he works as a prison guard.  He wants a divorce but not to pay for the maintenance of his wife or two daughters (alimony or dowry)—the wife refuses the divorce only because she doesn’t want herself or her daughters to be abandoned to the same impossible poverty that made her be farmed out as a young girl to a man who did everything but rape her before she was married off.  The village mullah offers to take care of her and her daughters if she will in essence prostitute herself by being his “temporary” wife, sigheh.  Aunt Zahra bursts into the room and roundly berates the retreating mullah, and we then learn from Soraya that Ali beats and mistreats her, but that Soraya can’t divorce him if it means abject poverty because it is his duty as a husband to take care of her and her children.

While Soraya is right in theory, practice is quite different, particularly in societies which give most of the powers to men over women, allowing them to divorce without paying alimony or dowry when it is inconvenient for them.  In Ali’s case, he cannot divorce his wife without her agreement, which differs in other parts of the Muslim world where often women have been divorced without their knowledge much less agreement until the deed was already done—although reforms to laws are making this less and less possible.  But in Islamic Iran, we are to understand that the husband must secure his wife’s permission first or he cannot divorce.  But he can beat, berate and torture her all he wants as his wife and no one can interfere.  Interestingly, Ali wants to divorce and take his sons (his heirs) while he would leave his daughters to his wife, another reflection of the devaluation of women.  At no time does the film address the 14-year-old that Ali wants to marry, which is shockingly young and illegal in many societies!  All we know is that she will agree to the marriage in order to save her father from execution and that Ali is totally smitten.  So smitten that he completely disregards the needs of his wife and daughters and only pays attention to his sons and future wife.  But Soraya has an advocate.

Aunt Zahra is as outspoken and aggressive as Soraya is meek and retiring and kindly.  She constantly comes to defend Soraya and offer advice and guidance, though we don’t see that she really understands Soraya except as she learns more about her inner strength and secrets during the troubles that Ali causes.  When Hashem, the mechanic’s, wife dies, Zahra prepares the body for burial, but Soraya chases away the women who come to steal her goods “because she won’t need them anymore”, including her jewelry, fabric and even sewing machine.  When Soraya sympathetically hands over the dead wife’s sewing machine to Hashem, her husband spies their hands accidentally touching and he begins to hatch his plan to accuse her of adultery.  First, he has the mullah as his accomplice because he knows the mullah had been in prison under the Shah.  He threatens to expose him unless he helps him get rid of his wife.  So the mullah goes along with the idea that since Hashem has a mentally disabled young son and no wife now, that Soraya should take over housekeeping and cooking chores for him.  Zahra says Soraya is available for a salary.  Innocent Soraya sees this as an opportunity to save money and be in better financial condition when she is divorced, which she imagines she will eventually have to break down and grant; Ali sees this is the first step in his plan to accuse Soraya of infidelity and improper behavior with Hashem.  Even when we see Ali cavorting with other women, Soraya never tries to accuse him of anything because she feels she needs his financial support for her family’s well-being.  But since Ali is the bread-winner, and Soraya the dispensable, Ali has no qualms about both playing around and playing the jilted husband.

So first he starts rumours that Soraya is unfaithful, and then with the mullah’s support they go after Hashem, finally breaking him down by threatening the welfare of his son and saying that if Hashem is also convicted then his son would go to a mental institution, or even worse, prison.  Less worried about his own safety, Hashem can’t bear to see anything happen to his son, so he agrees to confess that Soraya has been indecent with him—lying on his bed and saying things to him that “only the husband should hear”.  Somehow, Hashem is deemed innocent of any wrongdoing and only Soraya is convicted for adulterous behavior, by the headmen of the village, including her own father who she says will go along with whatever the other men say.  Because, after all, it was he who farmed her out as a youth to be mistreated as a servant because he wanted the money she would bring in—no matter what happened to her.  The village mayor even goes to Soraya to tell her she is accused, and asks if can she prove her innocence.  She retorts that she should be proven guilty, to which the mayor responds that if the husband is accused, he must be proved guilty but when the wife is accused, she must prove her innocence.  Therefore, the film is highly critiquing the new system of laws and mores under the religious leadership—both by showing the mullah to be of questionable background, by highlighting the inequality of the laws, and also showing that Ali is trying to arrange his marriage to the 14-year-old he’s fallen for by sneakily trying to prevent the girl’s father from being executed which he also does for money from the girl’s father.  Of course Soraya cannot prove her innocence—how does anyone prove innocence?  Especially since the men have harassed Hashem into confessing her guilt too.

The village headmen meet and decree that Soraya must be stoned to death for her insults to the honor of the village and Islam.    In fact, the mullah says that for every stone thrown the men will get their honor back.  Aunt Zahra tries to flee the town with Soraya, but is stopped by armed militia who seem to have come to make sure the decree is carried out for this egregious offence in the new Iran of morality and honor for men.  Soraya seems to constantly accept her fate, whereas Zahra fights against it constantly, even to the end when she defies the mullah and mayor and arranges a meeting with the foreign journalist.  Zahra even puts herself in front of Soraya in the village square and cries out that she should be stoned instead because she is an old woman with no children, but she’s callously thrown out of the way while Soraya is buried up to her waist in a pit so that she cannot move but to bend her torso so slightly.  Interestingly, Soraya is dressed all in white, like her innocence or her shroud, but this will not be an instance of her being clean and pure in the eyes of God and ready to go to heaven, so it is an interesting choice of dress.

The village mayor has prayed that if the verdict be just, he be given the strength to carry it out, but that if it be unjust that he be given a sign by God and given the strength to stop the stoning.  At the time of the verdict, a troupe of performers and clowns arrives in town and seeing a crowd begins to loudly try to attract an audience.  The mayor does not perceive this to be a sign, though to the film’s audience, at least to me, it was symbolic of the ludicrousness of the charge and the verdict’s harshness.  Strangely, the troupe hangs around to watch the stoning like one of their spectacles!

Soraya has the opportunity to speak before the stoning—at which point she does not even try to proclaim her innocence or cry out that it is a plot by her husband to get rid of her; instead she talks about the horrible nature of the verdict and asks the villagers how they could do something like that to one of their own.  Well, apparently she is no longer one of their own any more.  Even after a few stones have been thrown and Soraya survives, gushing blood but alive, one of the village women cries to the mayor that it is a sign that she is innocent and should be spared—but he does not stop the stoning.  Instead it proceeds for approximately 20 minutes of screen time, slowly, protracted, bloody, including scenes of Soraya’s two young sons participating in throwing stones.  Soraya does not try to block the stones; she lets them crash into her head and face, and eventually, as it draws on she begins to sob and lament and struggle in her earthen embrace, before finally, slowly and painfully, expiring.  At one point everyone thinks she’s dead, and her husband comes to check, only to see her glazed eye rolling in her head—he yells out “the bitch is not dead” and a new hail of stones descends to extinguish the last bit of life.  Of course by this time the women in the crowd, those sympathetic to Soraya, have been vomiting and crying at the violence, as have I.  This is not a stoning seen symbolically as in the Moroccan film Badis where a few stones are thrown and it’s over.  This scene perdures agonizingly drawn out, in vicious detail, until the very end.  Two of the performers/clowns who arrived in town earlier come and cover up the bloody pulp with a blanket, while the ensuing scenes show a night of revelry and partying with the performance troupe and the village celebrating their “victory”.  Most of the village women are sympathetic to Soraya, but some of them are self-righteous and glad that she is being punished; after all, she stopped them from taking the property of Hashem’s dead wife.  But Zahra and some of the sympathetic village women secretly take Soraya’s body to the river to bury her because she cannot be buried in the village cemetery—and now Zahra tells her story to the journalist because the world needs to know that an innocent woman was so victimized by her husband, her mullah, her father, her village.

As the story finishes, the reporter goes to get his repaired car but the mayor and mullah try to stop him from leaving the village.  They know he’s taped Zahra’s story, so they take the tapes from his bag and destroy them, even threatening to kill the journalist.  But he hastens to his car, screaming that he’ll go to the authorities, and careens away before they can try anything.  On the way out of town, we see Zahra standing by the side of the road triumphantly waving a cassette tape which she gives to the journalist as he leaves, then stands in the middle of the road to prevent the militia from firing upon the car with their guns as it speeds away.  Zahra yells out loudly that now the whole world will know what they’ve done.  And since the journalist does eventually write a book, and eventually this film is made from it—yes the world does indeed come to know the grisly and sad story of Soraya M. and through her story, we hopefully appreciate the plight of women all over the world who are mistreated because of their husband’s misdeeds, or religious fakery, or community mob mentality.

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Critique of Moroccan film Amours Voilees by Aziz Salmy

It is very difficult to write about this film for me—I have a love/hate relationship with it.  Which is funny, because the film is kind of a love-hate relationship between Batoul and Hamza!  Thus, this is not one of my better reviews.  But, I’ve got to write something!  So, I apologize in advance for being a bit (a lot) negative about the film.

On one hand there have been two very astute authors about the film who have very insightful blogs: and I encourage you to read their work because it is very thoughtful.  On the other hand, even watching the film a second time did not diminish my irritation at the shallow representation of most of the women characters in the film, including the main protagonists Batoul and Hamza. Amours Voilees came out in theaters in 2009 in Morocco, though it was produced in 2007, and is available online at several sites including YouTube.  There was apparently a lot of discussion and uproar about the film because it reveals (and I use the word appropriately here!) a veiled woman–during Ramadan no less–having non-marital sex, in addition to the many scenes of semi-nudity, sexual activity outside of marriage, and other contradictions to average Moroccan social mores.

The story:  Batoul is religiously observant, a doctor from an upper-class family, about 28 years old and unmarried—she had a fiancé but he died long ago—who hangs out with a circle of girlfriends who primp and preen and talk about men and sex constantly, until one day she meets Hamza, an older suave fellow, an interior decorator.  Though initially hesitant to embrace, soon Batoul throws herself into Hamza’s arms and bed and begins a very explicitly filmed (for Morocco) sexual affair.  But the affair is kept secret from her friends and family (voilee!) especially her very religious cousin who keeps on pestering her and her family with his declarations of wanting to marry Batoul.  In fact, once Annas has proposed, Batoul is prompted to talk to Hamza about marriage since they are so “in love”, but Hamza says definitively not, he will not remarry ever.  Batoul gets upset, and as it is soon Ramadan she breaks off their relationship to give him time to think it over.  But the break-up doesn’t last and soon they are having sex again, shopping, and having fun even though it is Ramadan (for those who don’t know, it is a month’s period when during the daylight hours one abstains from drinking/eating/smoking/sex and other things you can look up).  At one point, Batoul goes to a fancy party with Hamza, all dressed up disguised in a red wig—where she meets her brother!  She and Hamza flee in the car, but the brother chases them, gets into an accident and dies.  Then we see Batoul in mourning, veiled and praying, apparently having broken off with Hamza—she refuses to accept his calls–in her guilt and sorrow.  Eventually Hamza just starts a love affair with a new woman, Batoul’s friend Houyem, but when Batoul sees them out together, she can’t take her own jealousy and goes to Hamza’s house and throws herself in his arms.  They have sex and she brings up marriage again, throwing in a bit about “what if the woman is pregnant”, and Hamza says “never”, so she rushes out again, brushing past Houyem who then also breaks up with Hamza.  Apparently friendship is a stronger bond.  Batoul has a psychological and physical breakdown in her car, and we next see her in the hospital where the doctor says that thanks to her friend they could save the baby—she says not to tell anyone but Houyem figures it out right away and goes to pressure Hamza to come to the hospital to see her though he wants to have nothing to do with the baby and still refuses marriage.  Batoul tells Houyem and her girlfriends she’ll raise her baby on her own, refusing to see Hamza, and he walks out of the hospital.  End of film.

Basically, Amours Voilees is the story of Batoul, a well-off doctor who falls in love with an avowed bachelor (he’s been divorced) and their on-again-off-again romance because he refuses to marry, even when she’s pregnant with his child.  Perhaps the more minute details round-out this very simplistic story, but in the end it remains a rather simple story.  Perhaps that’s what bugs me about it—I was hoping for something a little more complex and insightful into women, which I have come to expect from older Moroccan filmmakers like Farida Benlyazid, Mohamed Tazi, Hakim Noury and Jilali Ferhati among others I won’t list off.  A great many films have been made about the subject and status of women, films which render women much more complex and their desires, taboos, goals, doubts, loves and disappointments more well-developed.  Aziz Salmy herein generally reduces love to sexual activity, desire, desire for marriage, and jealousy, where Batoul’s dilemmas are really reduced to “being sexually active” with Hamza, rejecting him when he refuses to marry, hiding under the veil when she’s done something wrong, then throwing herself back into Hamza’s arms, then rejecting him again when he still won’t marry even though she’s pregnant, and deciding to have her child “on her own”—all which she can do because she’s from an upper class family.  We don’t see Batoul “love” but “being sexually active” and jealous; we don’t see her have religious faith, but hide in the veil when her brother is killed because of her sexuality; we don’t see her choose a single-parent path, it is chosen for her when Hamza refuses to marry, although we are supposed to give her some credit for declining to abort the child.  Of course, I have two problems with this child issue; Batoul is a doctor.  Either she got pregnant on purpose to try and force Hamza into marriage, which doesn’t speak highly of her character either, or she’s been careless.  Perhaps if she hadn’t been a doctor this wouldn’t bother me so much.  In either case, it is a flaw in the film, to me, that we are asked to just accept that she is pregnant, an unnecessary plot point really, and to just accept that she decides “out of the blue” to have the baby outside of marriage without there being any real set-up about this character development at all. It bothered me tremendously as being too cavalier and unexplained by Batoul’s character.  Or perhaps we are supposed to believe that because she has sex outside of marriage, even during Ramadan, that she is immune to taboos that affect the rest of society.  Of course, Batoul’s upper-class status makes it easy for her to have freedom of movement so that she can be sexually active, and her class status makes it possible for her to have a child out-of-wedlock whereas other women in Morocco would find themselves in considerable trouble either with their families, the law, or society.  It is an easy way out, story-wise, to have Batoul be wealthy and able to “choose” whereas the reality for most women is not so easy!

Now, I agree with the filmmaker that what he showed in his film is a reality in Morocco—plenty of women have sexual relations outside of marriage, and some of those end in pregnancy and unwed mothers.  Of course, that is why there are a number of NGOs in Morocco that help unwed mothers, both because there is stigma (and law) against being an unwed mother, and because the women need to learn skills to support themselves, as most everyone in the situation is not upper-class.  And yes, plenty of women who wear the veil also have sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage.  Just as it is true that plenty of men are willing to have sexual relations with women whether veiled or not, men divorce women easily or abandon them and their children, and men also refuse to marry the women they make pregnant.  While the film in these instances is “realistic”, this does not erase the shallow treatment within the film that women receive, nor does it make it a good film overall.  Perhaps if one just wants to discuss socio-culturally an element of society, such as male/female relationships outside of marriage, the film can arouse conversation, but the answer for Batoul to raise the child on her own is managed simplistically and avoids the many social barriers that sexually active women and unwed mothers actually face.

I had high hopes for the film when we opened on Batoul praying then going out with her friends to a bar/nightclub.  Perhaps Batoul would be a complex character negotiating difficulties of being both sexually active and religious, something new.  But soon the film seems to focus on her physical self more than her spiritual or even mental self—many gratuitous shots of her nude in the bath, nearly undressed in bed, having sex with Hamza, again nearly undressed in the bath, etc.  On one hand we can say that of course Batoul is a sexual being even if she is religiously observant—yet the film emphasizes her sexuality over her religiosity by far.  We only see Batoul pray in the first scene, and then after her brother is killed when she is remorseful.  For another example, one of Batoul’s friends only begins veiling because she wants to catch a husband.  Neither of these women veil out of conviction and personal desire—it is a means to an end.  We are witness to Batoul’s continuous veiling and praying only when her brother dies, but we don’t really get any insight into this Batoul or her thoughts about religion.  She’s feeling guilty so she turns to religion—to get what?  Does she get solace?  Does she find out more about herself? This could be rich, fertile ground to explore—this conflict between desire/physical attraction and religion; or are they in conflict at all?  The film seems to show that they are unless marriage is the final outcome.  The film doesn’t delve into anything substantial but resides in the superficial.  When Batoul sees her friend with Hamza, jealousy leads her to toss off the veil right quick so she can jump into bed with him again—there’s no struggle, no angst, no self-doubt.  It seems after all Batoul is only a shallow woman being represented, but held up to be our heroine because she is the protagonist of the film and a heroine because she will have a child out-of-wedlock.

Another element of the representation of women that I find hard to digest is Batoul’s circle of friends who are frequently represented “in group”, while only one friend, Houyem, is allowed to stand out.  That is because Houyem purportedly represents “the abandoned woman”—she married, she had kids, she was abandoned by her husband somehow (it is unclear if she is divorced or simply he just left); now she is sexually free but complains to the women who condemn her freedom that she has done all the right things and finds herself abandoned, so what is she supposed to do?  She works in a beauty salon, so at least she is shown to have some trade, but we only orally hear about her dilemma of being an abandoned wife, we aren’t really shown it in any actions in the movie other than her love affair with Hamza when Batoul dumps him.  But most of the women friends are like a chorus that bring up “important questions” having to do with veiling to find a man, having sexual relations outside of marriage, having a child outside of marriage etc.—while the women themselves engage in the thought-provoking actions of fluffing their hair, putting on make-up, and preening in the mirror.  Again and again.  Or perhaps they are entwined in towels in the hammam.  Or they lounge or exercise.  All are very exciting women’s activities.  At least Batoul and one of the friends are doctors—they aren’t just primping and preening.

Then there is Batoul’s cousin, Annas, who is represented as being very religious.  He doesn’t like radio talk shows or modern music; he just listens to the Quran and prays.  He’s also as uni-dimensional as is Batoul, but her opposite.  He’s so in love with Batoul, he dreams of her, he thinks of only her.  But of course Annas would not want a sullied Batoul who is pregnant, and thus his religion is shown to be intolerant.  What about a tolerant Islam?  Can people make mistakes and still find a place in their religion or are they outcasts forever?    This would be another interesting facet for the film to investigate, but like other questions, it is dealt with superficially if at all.  We just see Annas’ face looking stricken from outside the hospital room window, but we don’t get to know what he thinks or feels or how his faith might allow him to see Batoul in a different light—is he capable of forgiving, or is he judgmental?  That is left unexplored.

So, I apologize for mostly criticizing the film.  It just struck a raw nerve that all the women and men in the film were shallow or simplistically motivated by sex.  At least Houyem got the opportunity to put friendship above sex.  The characters were unidimensional, except for Houyem, who is actually a rather marginal player.  Batoul is willful, Hamza a playboy, Annas a stoic Muslim brother, and the main game is how many fleshy shots and “in bed” scenes the filmmaker can get into a film without it being censored in Morocco.  He manages quite a few.

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Iranian film The Hidden Half, directed by Tahmineh Milani

…when I make a movie my aim is to challenge society. Some people don’t like this and disagree but the most important thing is to talk and be able to publicly debate these issues. This will help people to think more deeply about issues that they face.

In The Hidden Half, director Tahmineh Milani performs the above quote—she advocates talking and publicly debating important issues for individuals as well as society so that people can think more deeply about concerns they face.  The Hidden Half of the title references not only the grouping of women in Iranian society, hidden by the chador and custom and law, but also a hidden part of the life of the main character, Fereshteh, who lives for nearly 20 years with a husband who does not know she was a communist activist, and perhaps it is also a reference to the hidden populations who are against an Islamic regime ruling Iran which does not allow all-inclusive representation from all parties of the country.

In this instance, wife Fereshteh must confess her past to her husband, a judge, Mr. Samimi, who is on his way to another town to listen to the plea of a political prisoner condemned to death; she hopes that by confessing her own past, combined with her 17 years of marriage history with Mr. Samimi, he can come to understand the complexities of the past and perhaps hear with a new ear the story of the condemned woman in prison, perhaps to save her from the death penalty through his own edification about the previous era and the people involved.  Fereshteh divulges her history through a journal that she writes and puts in her husband’s suitcase for him to read while in Shiraz, hopefully before he hears the condemned woman’s story.  His reading of the journal occasions the film’s flashback to Fereshteh’s youthful life in Tehran as a student in the post-revolutionary period of the late 1970s early 1980s.  We not only learn that Fereshteh was a Communist activist, but had fallen in love with another man, Roozbeh Javid, an intellectual magazine editor, and through her adventures learned a lot about herself, life, and political reality.  She learns that she is as much concerned about love as she is with activism, that she wants safety and security rather than be martyr for communism, and that in reality her activities as a communist activist will deprive her of her desires, dreams, liberty and perhaps life.

First, Fereshteh was from a poor family in an unnamed village who only by good fortune, hard work and suffering was able to move to Tehran to attend university in hopes of making something of herself and ameliorating her and her family’s situation.  However, her background and personal inclination lead her to subscribe to and join a communist party group, of women, who write newsletters/pamphlets and read revolutionary literature from the likes of Che and others, in hopes to sway the developments of post-Shah Iran when various communist and socialist factions jostled with Islamic factions to take control of the country. An excellent article that focuses on the Tudeh Party but touches on all the leftist movements and their relations in post-Shah Iran can be found at  One trajectory of the film chronicles Fereshteh and her group’s movements as activists, their fear of Islamic fundamentalist reactionaries who pursued and beat them up regularly, and equally dangerous government forces such as the police, which arrested, imprisoned and even condemned certain militants to death.

Fereshteh’s group would meet in a café, to talk over literature they had read, actions they would engage in, publications they would write, their relationship to the leadership, etc.  One day at this meeting, Fereshteh catches the eye of a suave older man expounding on love just as she was talking about the issue of love in revolutionary times—they are attracted to each other but only meet later.  It turns out that the man, Roozbeh Javid, is a magazine editor, very well-known and well off.  Their first real encounter occurs at a commemoration ceremony for a demised Iranian filmmaker, when Roozbeh calls Fereshteh a “little lady” and she retorts something along the lines that she’s not a little lady at all and not swayed by his prestige.  Then she’s devastated that they don’t meet for a long time until one night, passing out flyers, she and colleagues are attacked by a gang of religious fundamentalists who chase after them, want to beat up Fereshteh, until she escapes and hides in the office of the magazine editor. This occasions their second meeting, when they begin to really get to know each other, when we begin to hear more clearly her interest in the revolutionary communist movement, and learn of his interest in her in particular and his “take” on activists in general.  We thus learn, through several dialogues then and over the time of their meetings in the future, that there are several currents of resistance to the Islamic regime and the Shah as well, that one should do more than read communist literature from other countries but perhaps delve into Iranian history for precedents to libratory options.  Roozbeh calls Fereshteh’s poetry “sloganeering” which is what the party needs, but is not real poetry as he defines it.  He invites her to a party, then takes her for drives in his Range Rover, and eventually she runs to him for salvation when her comrades are arrested by police.  He suggests she get a passport and escape to England until things calm down; especially that night as he drives her home police search for her.  He sends her off to her village to get her birth certificate so she can get a passport for England, and though she hesitates to leave, she has second thoughts about how much she is willing to sacrifice for the revolution, and she has fallen in love with Roozbeh.

She expects on her return to be met by Roozbeh but instead meets his assistant who tells her that he is married with a son older than Fereshteh, and that she should think about terminating their relationship.  Fereshteh is not sure she really believes the assistant, but goes the next day to meet the wife, and then subsequently learns from the wife that Fereshteh looks just like Roozbeh’s first love, a revolutionary student from 20-30 years earlier who had disappeared in a riot, which thus led to the marriage between Roozbeh and his current wife, who also says that the plan was far more than for Fereshteh to hide out in England—Roozbeh planned to join her there and never return to Iran.  Fereshteh then feels doubly betrayed—first because she would never willingly have a relationship with a married man, and secondly because perhaps Roozbeh is not really in love with her at all but with the mirage of her similarity to the earlier disappeared young revolutionary woman.  Though she rejects the wife’s offer to put her up in a safe apartment, and goes on to find a job with a handicapped woman who needs a live-in assistant, she does encounter Roozbeh in the street as she is on her way to disappear.  However, she does not give him a chance to explain himself.   She is convinced that she is doing the right thing by disappearing within Iran, without Roozbeh; this lack of communication resonates throughout the movie.

The Islamic government closes the universities in Iran for four years, a true anecdote, the period of time that Fereshteh stays with the handicapped woman, and during which time she meets the woman’s son who has been studying abroad—no one knows anything of Fereshteh’s past except that she was a university student.  Eventually Fereshteh wants to return to the University, but is harassed at every turn by an Islamic militant that has a grudge against her for her former communist activities.  However, aided by the handicapped woman’s son, Mr. Samimi, to return to university at last, Fereshteh gets her degree, then marries the son, never revealing her communist party involvement, her relationship to Roozbeh, her fear of arrest or imprisonment, but in fact being the perfect wife in all respects.  Until, full circle, she learns that Mr. Samimi is going to hear the case of a former militant condemned to death, and she is forced by her own conscience to reveal her past in hopes that it might lead her husband to be lenient towards the imprisoned woman whose past might be so similar to her own.  In fact, it is not just her own conscience awakened on its own, but by her chance encounter with Roozbeh at a funeral at that same time, at which he chastises her for not allowing him ever to have a chance to explain himself, to speak all that he had to say.  In remedy of this, she speaks all she has to say to her husband, and requests that he let the prisoner speak all she has to say, so that true communication can occur between people.

As example, the administrator blog writer of Iranian Cinema at has several very interesting points to make about the film.  The first is “limited self-expression in Iran” in which the writer clarifies:  “Milani believes that one of Iran’s biggest problems is that its people “…are unable to express our true personality…For both men and women, their lives inside their homes where it is private is one way and outside of their homes where they have to observe social regulations it is another way… Our women also have two faces inside their homes: the image of what their spouses or their spouses’ families want them to have, and what is inside them.”  The Hidden Half is Milani’s way of expressing this idea. In the home, Mr. Samimi continually repeats that he wife is so sweet and kind, and nothing like the woman he is about to judge. Yet in Fereshteh’s letter, she repeats that over time, she has gotten to know him so well, yet he knows little about her. She says that she never felt the need to tell him about her past until she heard the way he was speaking about the political prisoner, because the two were in reality so similar.  Milani emphasizes the women must have two faces by showing that Fereshteh never felt it necessary to tell her husband about her past, and that he never thought her as anything other than innocent.

I would add that the film reveals this in several ways.  One is that of course in Iranian cinema even a love relationship cannot be revealed by means other than dialogue, and correct, innocent dialogue at that, as men and women outside the bonds of marriage cannot be shown touching on the screen and no film would pass the censors if it went beyond the strict mores of contemporary political guidelines.  Thus, even Fereshteh’s love affair with Roozbeh is only visible through the fact that they dialogue at all, that she visits his office, rides in his car, attends a party with him, etc.  All are seemingly innocent acts that resonate strongly in the repressed expressive regime of today (or 2001 that is).

Other forms of limited self-expression would be Fereshteh’s fear to reveal herself to her husband for fear that he would divorce her for her past, although she feels she knows him well enough to stave off that fear in favor of advocating for the condemned woman.  Only by expressing her past can she hope that the judge, through his personal experience with her as a good woman rather than a “communist”, open his eyes to the personal plight of the woman prisoner who is a human being above all.  Just as she came to understand in the process of being persecuted for her beliefs that perhaps she had other overriding dimensions within herself, and learning that she judged Roozbeh quickly and harshly without allowing him to speak his multidimensionality, she wants her husband to see the condemned woman as a human being of multi-dimensions.

Though this film is 10 years old now, it still resonates with its message of personal, social and political repression as we currently witness Jafar Panahi, another impressive filmmaker in Iran, arrested and imprisoned in 2010, ostensibly for his work that criticized the regime.  Expression, whether the personal/political as for Fereshteh, the personal and cinematic/political of the filmmaker, since the director of this work was herself arrested and imprisoned for a week when the film was released, and threatened with the death penalty for this film’s discussion of the opposition movement, still are important in the realm of cinema in Iran.

Another theme introduced by the blog is “the right to romantic love” in which the administrator writes:  “In the letter to her husband, Fereshteh admits that she was in love with another man and was not ashamed of it. Furthermore, she asserts that her love with this other man was acceptable, despite the fact that he was so much older than her that his son was older than her. In meetings with her communist organization, Fereshteh often asks what the place of love is in the revolution. While the organization responds that love must be put on hold for the cause, Fereshteh does not agree and continues to pursue Mr. Javid. Fereshteh is very open about her love for Mr. Javid, saying that at one point she wanted to commit suicide for leaving him. She also admits that she did not love her husband right away, but had grown to love him very much over time.

Fereshteh was not ashamed of loving an older man, especially in a society in which young girls are often promised in marriage to much older men because they have status or wealth or other elements that elevate them in the eyes of the girl’s family.  In fact, it would not be unusual for Roozbeh to divorce to marry Fereshteh.  However, her morals prohibit her from having an affair with a married man, which is of course also against religious law in Iran, for which she could be arrested, which the film does not delve into.  So to make it impossible for Roozbeh to divorce and marry her, the plot must involve a “look-alike” from the past so that Fereshteh doubts whether it is really herself Roozbeh’s in love with or someone in his imagination.

Fereshteh not only marries the man who helps her go back to school, she marries a lawyer/judge who is middle-class, safe, and diametrically opposed to what she had believed in before.  It is as if she has done an about-face, turning her back on her communist ideals quite suddenly out of fear, so far as to marry someone who would eventually even be the judge of her peers.  We know little of this new Fereshteh except that her husband considers her a good wife and mother.  Does she work outside the home?  Does she do social work?  Is she in any way involved with her former ideals of a more just society?  Or has she abdicated all relationship with “youthful” ideals in favor of “mature” ideals of stability, security, family?

Finally, the third theme introduced by concerns “Anti-revolutionary thoughts and women’s roles in the revolution” wherein the author posts:  “The Hidden Half also served as a way for Milani to express her political views. In fact, Milani was charged with spreading anti-revolutionary propaganda through entertainment for releasing this film. The main story line is surrounding the revolution in 1979. In the movie, all of Fereshteh and her comrades’ efforts are in support of the communist party and the anti-revolution. Fereshteh’s section of the organization is a completely female sector, and they all are completely dedicated to their cause. All but one of her group members was sentenced to death or jail time. Milani’s use of women to support the revolution shows the positive effect she feels women can have on society. Milani also shows a woman’s right to protest and to support her beliefs with the use of these strong female characters.

In fact, the film shows two important components—anti-Islamic government forces at work at all, which is a rarity, and women in the communist party, which is a real rarity.  She tackles two arenas that haven’t been much addressed at all, much less in contemporary Iranian cinema.  Of course the State has made it illegal or scary to address the communist forces at work in society at the time of the Islamic revolution, even though those forces were as equally powerful as the Islamic forces.  Many people were disappeared, arrested, condemned to death, imprisoned for long periods, etc. for being members or activists in the various communist and socialist parties active during the Shah’s time as well as after the Islamic takeover of government.  The film does well to show that oppression stemmed not just from the government but also from individual “gangs” of government supporters that roamed various neighborhoods to police them.  In fact, as the film shows, universities were hotbeds of strife, which is why there were constant battles there and the universities were eventually closed for years.  Milani reveals quite a lot about the various factions at work simultaneously trying to shape the “new” Iran, not forgetting what Fereshteh calls the bourgeois middle class like the magazine editor she falls for in spite of his class position.  That the editor wishes to escape to England with Fereshteh says as much about many upper-middle class Iranians who feared the Islamic regime as it does about the love relationship between the two individuals.

Even if a film dared to talk about communist sympathies strong in Iran at the time of the revolution, very little discourse concerned women in the party, particularly all-women cells such as that which Fereshteh belonged to.  One weakness perhaps of the film for a die-hard communist might be that Fereshteh, when faced with harassment, possible arrest and imprisonment, suddenly decides she is not that committed and she hides out with a job in a handicapped woman’s house and eventually even marries a man who becomes a judge of people she once had been like.  Unlike her comrades who were willing to be arrested and were committed, she became scared and that eroded her communist ideals—she was willing to give up communist for bourgeois ideals.  But perhaps, given the political situation in Iran, no other Fereshteh could be shown in a film—one could hardly make a film about a communist martyr!  What we must console ourselves with is her strength of character to eventually come out into the open about her past beliefs in hopes of saving another person, after she had spent so much time focused on saving herself.

Still and again, the treatment within the film, although slightly problematic, might be the best one can hope for under the circumstances of a regime that gives approval for a film then arrests the filmmaker anyway and only releases her after international outcry; then 9 years later arrests another prominent filmmaker on the same charges.  Severe censorship makes filmmakers search for alternative means to get their messages on the screen—that there is a film about the communist party activities in late 70’s Iran at all is quite impressive, especially one that focuses on women’s roles in that struggle, even if the main protagonist loses her way for 20 years.

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Analysis of Ahmed Boulane’s The Satanic Angels/Les Anges de Satan is a great source for film photos, but most of the writing about this film is in French and pretty generic, so I won’t list websites for you.

The Satanic Angels/Les Anges de Satan was released in Morocco in 2007, written and directed by Ahmed Boulane, his second feature after Ali, Rabiia et les Autres, and deals with a true historical event in Morocco that occurred in March 2003.  Thus the film was timely made and I think timely to speak about given events in the Middle East and North Africa at the present.

Boulane has taken a real event, the arrest, trial and imprisonment of 14 younger men in Casablanca, Morocco for being Satanists vis-à-vis their heavy metal music and alternative youth lifestyle (tattoos, piercings, black clothes, heavy metal emblems, etc.), and turned it into a story not as much about the young men as about the social reaction to their arrest.  The film does introduce us to the young musicians very superficially, then proceeds to detail their arrest by Casablanca police for suspicion of being Satanists after similar youths had been arrested in Egypt, I believe.  Their heavy metal music was the main indicator of their belonging to a Satanist group, while other “evidence” seemed to be their clothing (an upside down cross on a t-shirt, a t-shirt that said “kiss my ass”, a plastic skull, posters of other heavy metal musicians from abroad, etc.) which were all collected in raids on the homes of the young men.  Once all arrested, the parents mobilized to try to free their children, forming a group with the aid of a journalist who wrote many stories about freedom of expression and the plight of the youth and in the end got beat up terribly for his efforts, and a group of social democrats who believed that they should help intervene in favor of the youth or perhaps others would later be arrested on similarly bogus charges, much like during the “years of lead” suffered in Morocco previously.  Mostly the film concerns the mobilization efforts of the parents and concerned friends, the trial of the youth where they seemed mostly scared and clueless, the movement of 11 of the 14 to a youth detention center while 3 stayed in prison, their eventual release until a verdict was rendered during which some nod was made to a hunger strike because 3 of the group were not released (being older than the rest), a huge protest in Casablanca in favor of the rights of the youths to musical expression, and their eventual freedom by the courts—although the 3 older men were found guilty but released for time served.  The film ends with one of the group leaving Morocco to France, dismayed by the events he’s suffered, while another youth has to contend with parents who want him to change his lifestyle suddenly even though he has been exonerated.  He cries out that they were rebels in their youth, too, and now that they’ve been victorious they want him to change?  Well he won’t.

The film was well made on a low budget, with excellent directing, acting, mise-en-scene on limited means, and as usual my concern with the film lies less in the intrinsic elements of filmmaking and more with the social and cultural concerns rendered on the screen, with a nod to some character development problems that, to me, marred the effectiveness of the story.  The filmmaker was not accorded permissions to film in many necessary locations, and according to trivia “Because of the inflammatory content, the film was refused shooting permits for almost all of its locations, including a Moroccan courtroom which had to be reconstructed in a church in Casablanca at the very last minute.”  Apparently the authorities thought that the film script didn’t put the legal process or government in a very good light.  Even when authorization was given to shoot in a local prison, it was rescinded within one day and other “similar” locations had to be found to substitute for the prison scenes.  However, apparently the police were cooperative and lent firearms for the shooting, and even technical assistance.  The film cannot be critiqued on those areas, as mentioned above, but my one problem was the lack of real identification with any of the individuals involved, a lack of sense of personal investment in the outcome of the judgments, except that the judgment had social repercussions more than just personal.  More focus is placed on the parents, activists, and friends than on the actual arrested 14–which means our identification should lie with those who are actually given voice in the film.

As the film audience, we’re not really close to the musicians who are effected—in fact the closest we get is in a café scene and a scene with two foreign visiting girls in their practice space turned party space, where one and all joke and jive—but we really don’t know what the young men (in this case all males were targeted) believe in besides playing music and pursuing alternative subculture in an exterior fashion.  The young men themselves are not given voice in this film, which is more about the process of society rallying to their cause and the injustice of their arrest which prevails—as Boulane says in an interview  “L’entente n’a pas été cordiale avec toutes les victimes du procès des quatorze, voire avec certains de leurs proches et amis. Je les comprends mais, moi, je fais mon film, selon ma vision et mon adaptation de leur histoire”, explique encore le réalisateur, qui a cristallisé pendant tout le tournage la colère, bien compréhensible, des vraies victimes du procès.   (  Apparently, the film was not made with the support of the 14 young men arrested, which may explain the minimal attention paid to their personal motives, thoughts, reactions and repercussions of their experiences.

As Boulane also implies, this is his film, written and directed by him, of his reconstruction of events, not a documentary about the 14, and not a historical re-enactment, but a liberal interpretation of events in order to render for posterity a moment in Morocco’s history, a moment that, in my view, should not be forgotten for several reasons.  First, it concerned freedom:  freedom of speech, human rights, and democracy which were burgeoning in Morocco at that time with the new King just taking the throne in 1999 and espousing reforms and modifications to social order.  Second, it concerned a moment when social mobilization of diverse groups actually effected change to political maneuverings—it was the press, demonstrations, activist groups, and other political activities that had real influence on the outcome of the trials of the young 14 musicians.

Under King Hassan II, there was very little freedom of speech in Morocco, and many were arrested for speaking out about various needed social reforms, journalists were arrested and newspapers were seized for voicing opinions contrary to the king’s status quo.  Thus, when Mohammed VI took power after his father’s death in 1999, one of his strategies to make Morocco a more favored nation with the EU, and to qualm some of the opposition voices in the country was to liberalize freedom of speech, open up some new areas of rights, reform slightly the family law, and other acts that seemed jeopardized by the arrest of the 14 on specious claims of their satanic involvement.  The social mobilization around the arrest of the 14 youths could not have happened as peacefully if not for the liberalized social space opened up by Mohammed VI, yet there were continued fears that such liberalized space could be taken away at any moment.  Even under Mohammed VI newspapers are seized and journalists arrested—it is not as if total freedom has been granted—there are still limits to what can be said and done.

What is also interesting is that a youth subculture was targeted that was a little too western, heavy metal music not being an offshoot of Moroccan or African musical traditions which might be said about other genres such as rai or gnawa fusion or jazz that were also very popular subcultural movements with youth.  Yet youth in Morocco are very clued in to movements, such as musical movements, elsewhere in the world and like youth everywhere, wish to express themselves and be part of larger communities both in the type of music played, the accoutrements that go along with the music such as modes of dress and hair and posters, etc.   Youth want to try things differently from past generations, though of course heavy metal has been around for a long while in the west, but not in countries like Morocco, Egypt, Iran….  Yet the youth don’t see the music as being estranged from Islam—they are Muslim whether they play rock or metal or gnawa or traditional musical genres.  In the movie a youth is asked what his religion is, and he not only claims Muslim but recites the opening verse of the Koran to prove it.  At issue for the youth is not their religion, but their youthful subculture; at issue for conservative Islamists, such as one depicted rather uniformly in the film, is their youthful subculture that is “against” Islam and morals.  When targeting youthful morals, the fear goes, where would the State stop?  Would all forms of youth subculture be outlawed that perceived to antagonize conservative Islamists?  What about devout Muslims across the Middle East and North Africa who play heavy metal or rock or hip hop—is the outward manifestation of music an appropriate signifier of an inward religious faith?  Where does one draw the line?  That is the importance of this film, for drawing attention to the fact that lines must not be drawn on such outward manifestations or we risk losing freedom of speech, freedom of dress, freedom of movement and affiliation.  Freedom of playing music.  These freedoms are under attack across the Middle East and North Africa, which probably has something to do with the recent protests from Morocco to Egypt to Bahrain.

Finally, to target a youth group for practices of Satanism is ludicrous in a country where traditional magical practices still pervade—even though overt forms of magic are illegal.  This speaks of the introduction of conservative Islam in government, where many traditional practices are being made anti-Islamic, such as traditional women’s tattoos.  I remember one 80-year-old woman complaining even in the early 2000s that she wished she could have her tattoos removed because she heard on the radio that it was anti Islamic.

The film ends with a message about the May 2003 Islamic extremist group attacks in Morocco on a hotel, a bar, a synagogue, and other locales where a number of people were killed—12 suicide bombers and 33 victims.  Thus, it puts a more political spin on the film rather than just being about a group of musicians and being about freedoms in general in a State that is constantly defining what freedoms are allowed.  Les Anges de Satan is a worthwhile film to see for reminding us what collective action can accomplish against State repressions on such innocent activities as playing heavy metal music and participating in youth subculture that has little overtly political aims.  At this point in time with collective action occurring across the board, one should revisit any such films that remind us that there is a potentially positive outcome when the people manifest their collective power—a collective power made up of individual commitment.

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Analysis/Review of “Biutiful” directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Inarritu)

There are so many reviews for this film, because it is in official competition in Cannes and up for a best foreign Academy Award and best actor Oscar, that I can’t really direct you to any in particular reviews this time that stand out, but of course here I’m going to talk differently a little bit about the film Biutiful, less about Javier Bardem as a fantastic actor, which he is, no doubt about that, and more about the incredible cultural elements diffused throughout this feature by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Inarritu).  In fact, I was a bit surprised by the number of negative reviews of the film, which I found exceptionally well made with only one instance of a “yep, I could see that coming a mile off” moment in the plot.  Overall, it was stylishly and beautifully photographed, excellently acted by all the cast, many who were not professionals, and very touching in story-line.

Bardem plays Uxbal, the main protagonist of this film who is surrounded by a host of other protagonists without whom the story could not be the intertwined headlong fateful fall that it soon becomes.  He is first a father, having sole custody of his 10 year old daughter and younger son, struggling to bring them up, get them to school on time, have good food on the table, have after-school care, all the normal worries of a parent in the modern world.  But more, because Uxbal doesn’t have your average employment—he’s living on the margins of society, trying to bring up his kids in relative poverty, doing his best to juggle his multiple responsibilities to bring in money and to care for his children.  Soon, to add dis-ease to the equation, Uxbal is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, given at most a couple of months to live.

He worries about leaving his children without a reliable parent, as their mother is both bipolar and irresponsible, not someone he can comfortably turn them over to, and his brother is an equally irresponsible selfish fellow who couldn’t raise them, and there is no other family.  Worse, he had been fatherless himself since his father died while his mother was pregnant, something that bothered him his entire life, which he does not want to perpetuate upon his own children—and his own mother had died while he was quite young, leaving him no real family to grow within.  What fate will his children meet when he dies?  It is inspiring to see a film in which a male figure actually wholeheartedly takes on fatherly duties and loves his children—too often we only see representations of men who abandon their children carelessly.  Uxbal is hyper-responsible in parenting, though at times he loses his temper with his son who is, like many a child, an irrepressible button-pusher.

Uxbal’s work and role entails functioning as a go-between among several sources—a Chinese man who imports illegal Chinese laborers who either work illegally at construction sites, or manufacture knock-off handbags and CDs/DVDs that illegal African immigrants sell on sidewalks in the posher areas of town; Uxbal is responsible for paying off the cops to look the other way while the Africans ply their wares on the streets illegally; he also is responsible for trying to convince the Africans that they are condoned to sell illegally in only certain districts, whereas they continue to taunt fate by selling downtown, and add drug selling as a sideline; Uxbal also acts as a go-between for the recently departed (dead) who communicate through him to their families—although sometimes the families don’t want to hear what he has to say to them; when one of his African contacts is deported Uxbal takes it upon himself to make sure his wife and baby are not left homeless and penniless when evicted from their tenement rooms; and in a large sense Uxbal acts as go-between for his own ex-wife and children, trying to reconcile with his wife and then trying to soften the story of her insanity and addictions when the children ask where she’s disappeared to when the reconciliation busts apart.  All these roles take a toll on Uxbal, especially since he is not a miracle worker, but a regular man struggling to do right in a path of wrong.  Of course his job is wrong and illegal, but it exists in reality, someone has to or will do it, and he tries to be “good”, such as worrying about the laborers’ welfares and well-beings, even going so far as to spend money to buy them heaters for the basement in which they are locked en masse every night.  Of course, nothing goes right for the man.

The Chinese labor importer, Hai, doesn’t want to pay the police; the Africans don’t want to sell only in the permitted area; the police want to make an example of the Africans and crack down on them and deport quite a few even though they’ve been paid off to look the other way; the heaters Uxbal buys for the basement are faulty and of course asphyxiate all the laborers trapped there over night; Uxbal’s rapprochement with his wife goes terribly wrong and he ends up moving back to his apartment, this time also inhabited by Ige, the wife of one of the deported sellers.  In fact, it seems nothing Uxbal tries to do can work out.  Mostly, he struggles on, fueled by the need to save some cash to take care of his children when he dies.  That overwhelming need keeps him going day after day, even when he’s reduced to wearing adult diapers because he can’t control urinating on himself.  In fact, this lack of control over his bodily functions is synonymous with his lack of control over events in his life.

Most interesting in the film is the margins of society described here.  This is not Barcelona of tourism and photo essays, this is the seedy side streets, the dingy apartments and warehouses, the claustrophobic tiny spaces in which individuals struggle to carve a niche for themselves.  Chinese immigrants suffer trying to gain a foothold in a new society, and are exploited by the Chinese who brought them to Spain who hold the attitude that no matter how badly they are treated it is better than being in China.  The workers exist crammed into a barren cement basement to sleep, locked in over night lest they escape, awoken at 6:30 am to start work either in the sweatshop upstairs or in construction where they don’t really know what they are doing.  Uxbal’s wife is a lost soul, wandering between her addictions to drugs and alcohol and her bipolar rants and on the other hand her desperate need to reclaim her husband and children and make the family work again—but she can’t help herself from doing wrong as well.  When Uxbal is out working, she leaves the kids alone as she goes out to party, she beats her son for going to the fridge with wet feet which she fears will electrocute him, then catches him smoking and sets his bed on fire and throws it into the street, and even leaves him alone in the apartment while she takes her daughter away for a birthday celebration overnight because he’s wet the bed.  She just can’t be a responsible parent no matter how much she loves her husband or children.  So Uxbal leaves her after trying the reconciliation, hoping she’d recovered, but finding in the end that she’s like everyone else around him, spiraling out of control downward.

Hai, the Chinese labor lord, is also shown to be reluctant to pay off the police in a timely manner, also reluctant to pay Uxbal the money owed for his services, and then listens to his boyfriend who takes a hard line on the treatment of the laborers and Uxbal.  When the Chinese laborers all die of asphyxiation, Hai turns over to his boyfriend the handling of the bodies—which are taken out to sea and dumped, which spells disaster as the bodies all wash ashore and of course Hai’s operation is raided and his family arrested—somehow he escapes but either he murders his boyfriend or the boyfriend commits suicide—it is unclear.  He warns Uxbal to tidy up all loose ends.  For Uxbal, tidying up the loose ends really entails making peace with the dead as he feels completely responsible for their deaths, buying cheap heaters so he can pocket more of the money on his own.  He can’t really reconcile with the dead Chinese, but he can reconcile with his own demise.

Uxbal helps Ige by giving her his apartment when her husband is deported and she’s evicted, but he winds up going back to the apartment himself with the kids, which he then shares with her and her baby, depending on her more and more as he falls more ill. In the end, he’s completely dependent on Ige, in a sense forcing her to become surrogate mother to his children because their biological mother is in a treatment center and unavailable, and he’s dying.  At first she starts by cooking, then taking the kids to school, then she’s medicating Uxbal, cleaning him, and finally he gives her all his cash and says she’s got to take care of the children—the money is enough to pay the rent for years and pay for other expenses too.  Ige is put in a difficult situation because she really wants to return to Senegal to her husband, and in fact packs her belongings and goes off to the train station.  Later, however, she returns, and Uxbal, passing on his mother’s diamond wedding ring to his daughter, can let go and die.  Everything has unraveled by now: the Chinese laborers are dead, the Africans are deported, the police crack down on the labor importer and even the police who were paid off are no longer complicit.  The wife is gone to a rehab center.  In essence, there’s really no other option for Uxbal than to let go and traverse to the other world that he knows is waiting, death not being an end but a transition.

This is another interesting component of the film—the family.  Uxbal didn’t grow up in a “traditional” family, and in a sense considers his charges—the Chinese and Africans—to be part of his extended “non-traditional” family, which is why he takes on responsibility of Ige when her husband is deported.  And why he depends on Ige when dying.  He must leave his children with someone—she’s it by force of circumstance.  And she accepts it because she also cannot have a traditional family in Spain, with her husband deported and unable to make ends meet on her own with a small child to care for.  There is no reason that circumstances can’t create a family when the biological family bonds are rent asunder.  And the children slowly but surely accept Ige as surrogate parent, as she slowly but surely accepts her new role as their mother.

Another interesting facet of this film is that it treats marginalized characters, which in this era of economic turmoil and globalization, means quite a lot of people.  Too many films only deal with the wealthy or middle class, and eschew the poor, the marginal, those struggling to make ends meet any way they can.  This entire film is about the marginal, the underclass, the foundation of societies all over the world, people with real problems that meet real bad endings all the time.  Perhaps because I’ve been poor, with little recourse, and known quite a lot of very poor people, this film really resonated with me and made every character’s story poignant, not just Uxbal’s, though he was the central unifying agent of the story about a plethora of struggling individuals, whether fiscally, emotionally, mentally, or socially.  Of course, Uxbal dies, unlike many unfortunates, with money saved to care for his children, even if it is in an unorthodox family—whereas not so many individuals are so lucky or crafty as he.  However, the film is well worth watching, just take your handkerchief.

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Giddh, The Vultures, 1984 South Indian Movie Directed by T.S. Ranga, Review and Analysis

This older South Indian movie, Giddh, written and directed by T.S. Ranga, is available from Netflix or online downloading, with a nice small blog article at  Set in Karnataka, the movie features Hannumakka (Smita Patil) as a devadasi or devotee or initiate of the goddess Yellamma, the village goddess, who everyone worships and fears, while Om Puri plays Bachiya, a sort of pimp or jack-of-all-trades who stays close to Hannumakka and her sister who has one daughter, Lakshmi.  The story is both about the villager’s trials with poverty and the efforts of Hannumakka and Bachiya and the village teacher to save Lakshmi from either a direct life of prostitution or an indirect life of prostitution if she is also initiated as a devadasi to Yellamma (see for an extensive coverage of the link between serving the goddess Yellamma and serving as a prostitute in a village).  Several conflicts intertwine.

First, as the village is excessively poor and the land without water, villagers are anxious not to anger Yellamma and make their luck even worse.  So it would be good, they debate, if they initiated Lakshmi to the goddess, as suggested by their feudal landlord–but it is expensive, so they would need the financial support of the same rich landlord of the village who, as we see below, has ulterior motives for making this suggestion.  Further, Hannumakka’s sister has also promised Lakshmi to a local rich man who has paid to have first access to her virginity, whereas the original rich local lord, Desai (Achyut Potdar) also has his eyes on her and tries several ways to get his own hands on her first—he indicates to the girl’s father that she should be initiated as a devadasi to Yellamma, because the family is so poor, then when that tactic fails he tries to outbid the other rich man in actual cash payment to the girl’s mother–finally he simply attempts to abduct the girl outright.  Another problem in the village is the local young man who rounds up the girls and takes them to Mumbai where he converts them into prostitutes in order to provide some small sums of money to their families in the village.  Even this young man has his sights set on Lakshmi as a promising young prostitute.

Against all these odds, Hannumakka is outspoken in front of the villagers, in her family, towards Desai, and even towards the other rich lord who wants Lakshmi.  She is very cognizant that the rich lord has proposed that Lakshmi be initiated so that he can take her virginity, and that he is using the villagers’ superstitions or god worship to render them fearful so as to get his own agenda met.  But no matter how persuasively Hannumakka argues, no one listens to her.  So far Lakshmi has been spared because she hasn’t reached puberty yet, but when she does, Hannumakka and Bachiya concoct a plan to make her escape the village and take a bus to Mumbai to her uncle there who will raise and educate her properly and safely.  However, when they try this once, they miss the bus and find themselves trapped by Desai who tries to forcibly detain the girl at his compound, but Hannumakka starts a fire as a distraction and she and Bachiya grab Lakshmi and take her home.  They are finally able to escape with Lakshmi to the road and put her aboard the bus to Mumbai, but unfortunately the young village pimp gets aboard at another village, recognizes Lakshmi, and the film ends with her trustingly snuggling against him to nap through the long journey.  The film ends on this ambivalent tone both to juxtapose action and fate, and to leave an open ending as to whether the uncle will indeed save Lakshmi or she’ll wind up a prostitute after all.

There are several elements that I enjoyed most about this movie.  One is the absolute realism of the mise-en-scene and directing.  This is not the average Bollywood film with fake sets and singing and dancing, although there is a song interlude when Hannumakka and another devotee sing about/to Yellamma.  However, it is more of a folk song rather than a big performance.  Otherwise, the village is realistic.  People are dirty, they look hungry and tired and without water.  They wear no shoes, their houses are authentically poor and ramshackle, the men waste their few resources getting drunk at the local watering hole.  Whether the director used real villagers or actors for supporting parts is uncertain, as I’ve not found anything written about the film, but it was spectacular to see Om Puri, a renowned actor, running barefoot through the village and countryside dust.  Even the opening credits of the film show actual photos of prostitutes to set the scene for the conflict of the movie—trying to save one village girl from this fate.  Further, the subject of the film is realistic—Karnataka made it illegal to make girls into devadasis in the mid-1980s, the time when this film was directed—all of India did so in the late 1980s.  Yet the practice continues, as does the phenomenon of young girls being taken from villages to large cities to become prostitutes, or turned into prostitutes within the villages themselves.  What the film tries to underscore is the absolute poverty that makes this alternative seem an acceptable option for women, yet a poverty juxtaposed to absolute wealth such as the landlord whose riches will give him deflowering privileges of the devadasis.  The landlord earns his wealth upon the backs of the villagers, and his privileges come at the expense of the villagers’ mores and superstitions.

One scene I enjoyed is when a contractor was about to give money to a man, and his wife snatches it up and proclaims that since he would just drink it up anyway, she’d better take the money.  The film does show quite a lot of drinking alcohol, even though or because of the poverty abounding.  The rich as well as the poor seem to constantly consume the liquor that seems to be primarily the solace for men, but even Hannumakka at one point turns to drink when she despairs of saving Lakshmi and bemoans her fate that she has been rendered a prostitute rather than a proper wife, which she wanted to be when young.  That is why she is so determined to save at least one girl from her own fate—she knows the price to pay.  One reason she turns to drink is that she was so proud of being able to marry off one of the village girls, but one night the girl returns alone to the village, having run off from her married home because she can’t stand married life and would prefer the life of the local prostitute!  This sends Hannumakka over the edge and makes her doubly intent on saving Lakshmi.    I recall that Indian women took up the issue of men’s drinking quite stridently during the 1990s, stopping liquor delivery trucks and destroying the contents, because liquor was such a devastating influence on villages suffering already from poverty, drought, and social problems.

The film includes several instances in which the wealthy of the area can abuse their power over “regular” villagers.  For example, the village teacher wants to oppose the rich landlord’s desire for Lakshmi, so the landlord has the teacher transferred to a distant and smaller village.  The landlord can have Hannumakka arrested for starting a fire on his property, while the villagers cannot protest against the landlord’s goons trying to kidnap Lakshmi from her own home in the middle of the night.  The landlord can order his goons to beat Bachiya near to death for not helping him get Lakshmi, but Bachiya cannot retaliate at all.   The rich comprise one component of the vultures of the title, which also include the pimps that take off young girls to the cities to become prostitutes, and the police that can be bought off by the wealthy.

There is not a lot of action or drama per se in this film; the drama stems from your identification or not with Hannumakka and Bachiya’s goal of saving Lakshmi against all odds, against family, against tradition, against the local wealthy, against the local pimp, even against her own childish unawareness of the odds at stake.  If we can identify with Hannumakka, the rebel, the aware, the sad, the sick, and if we as viewers are cognizant and aware of the difficulties faced by most prostitutes and devadasis, then the film’s drama indeed propels us through the near two hours of the film, yet the film closure or lack thereof leaves us dismayed at the potential for yet another intervention of fate to ruin an innocent girl’s life.

It is important that the film does not offer marriage as a panacea remedy.  Women’s lives can be as difficult in marriage as in prostitution; in fact, the village prostitute seems to be the healthy, happy, beauty in a film filled with struggle and sadness.  She’s not carrying rocks on her head building a road, or clearing a field bent over all day long, scraping for food, or having a disproving husband constantly nag and torture her.  She’s free, she has money, she’s sympathetic.  She’s plump while others struggle to find something to eat.  She’s not embarrassed by her role either.  Thus there’s a contradiction in Hannumakka as a devadasi and prostitute who resents her fate, and the happy prostitute who makes the most of her position.

What really seems at stake is that it is young girls who are being targeted—girls who like Lakshmi don’t really understand what is in store for them whether they are married off or sold into prostitution or initiated into a devadasi.  It is one thing for adult or more mature women to decide their own fate, yet another for adults to make fates for the innocent who have no right to choose.  Hannumakka and Bachiya try to send Lakshmi to Mumbai to grow up, to be educated, to have the option to make a choice rather than to be chosen for, especially when Hannumakka has to face the reality that marriage is not always the salvation she sentimentally dreamed it would be.

While Giddh deals with the variety of issues surrounding prostitution and village life that leads to it as well as devadasis, the film is not a simple condemnation, as noted above.  Both sides or approaches are presented.  Hannumakka is not happy as a devadasi, but another woman is perfectly content to serve the goddess and perform the ancillary duties.  The village prostitute is perfectly happy with her role, whereas Hannumakka and Bachiya try desperately to save the young girls from similar fates.  Of course, we are not shown the bleak sides of prostitution in the big cities, the harshness of the realities for the girls taken off to Mumbai, we are left to imagine, as we are left to imagine the ending of the film.



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Analysis/Review of Kharboucha, Moroccan Film, Hamid Zoughi director

Kharboucha (Kharboucha ou Ma Ydoum Hal–Kharboucha ou rien n’est eternal—Kharboucha or nothing is eternal), Hamid Zoughi’s directorial debut in 2007 with a release date in late 2008 at a festival in Tangier in Morocco, comprises one of very few exceptionally well-produced Moroccan historical dramas.  The film may be viewed in 8 parts with French subtitles on YouTube, but also can be downloaded from a number of bit-torrent sites according to a general Google search.  A couple of quite truncated pieces of French writing on the subject are found at and and while so far no writing in English seems available.

This analysis/review is actually quite short as Zoughi’s film is rather easily synopsized though it has many tangents (plot elements) that make the story interesting, so you’ll actually have to watch the film to get the full flavor of Kharboucha.

The character of Hadda/Kharboucha is played by Houda Sedki, while Khadija Merkoum actually sings Kharboucha’s songs which are then synced by the actress, although Sedki has a trained singing voice—ayta music is quite different from the western classical tradition Sedki trained in.  The film was funded by the Centre Cinematographique Marocain and the television channel 2M in Morocco at 3.8 million dirhams, but there is no information about popularity or audience figures.

Kharboucha is actually the name of a historical figure from the early-mid 20th century, a singer in the aita (ayta) tradition from the region of Safi (southeast Morocco), whose fame rests as much on her renowned voice as on the politically rebellious content of her songs.  Her real name Hadda, Kharboucha originated from the tribe of Oulad Zaid who were attacked and her family slaughtered by a rather evil and quite powerful Caid of the nearby tribe/locality—thus her songs against this Caid and his dictatorial rule and a call for uprising.  As a singer, Kharboucha is called a Chikha (cheikha) in Moroccan dialect, which has a number of subtextual meanings—one is that she might be a “loose” woman morally, and another is that she is a singer with a small ensemble of accompanying musicians on traditional instruments.  Usually chikhat sing/perform during this time period (and currently) either in individual houses where they are invited to entertain for parties, or at souks (traveling or occasional outdoor markets), at weddings and other important social events like moussems (religious pilgrimages), and equally for male and female audiences separately.  The fact of cheikhats’ social mobility and personal agency when other women are specifically not socially mobile nor have personal agency lends to their reputation as being less moral or less bound by social mores and prohibitions than other women, whether in the past as in the film Kharboucha, or in the present time in which cheikhat’s continue to perform throughout Morocco.  The change in the present time is that one can find cheikhat’s also singing and dancing in bars/lounges in addition to the venues noted above, while some have become incredibly famous with albums, etc.

Kharboucha’s story, and thus the story of the film, is that first she is punished for being in love and consorting with the Caid’s/tribal hash seller, then when her village is pillaged and her family slain in a raid by the Caid who wants to replace all his livestock killed by an epidemic with the livestock of the neighboring tribe—she sings out publicly against the Caid’s cruelty and injustice and merits some more beating and imprisonment.  However, the Caid’s son is in love with her, and says he will destroy his father if she will trust in him—however, this son’s plot is overthrown by the wily Caid and Kharboucha imprisoned again; Kharboucha escapes from prison and is sheltered by various other tribal leaders until one treacherously turns her in to gain favor with the Caid and she ends up back in prison hung by her feet for days on end.  The Caid won’t kill her and turn her into a martyr and strengthen her songs’ power, but decides instead to marry her.  On the wedding night, Kharboucha tries to poison him, and when that doesn’t work she breaks into seditious song yet again.  While the Caid ushers her off to be walled-in alive, we hear the other tribal leaders in attendance at the wedding repeat Kharboucha’s song, much to the Caid’s chagrin, while Kharboucha’s tribe has secretly prepared to attack the Caid to regain their honor, to save Kharboucha, and to get back their livestock and goods.  However, at the time Kharboucha is being walled-in alive, her lover who leads the attack is shot and killed as well.  Thus, the film ends without us knowing the outcome of the raid against the Caid, unless we know our Moroccan tribal history!  What we do know is that Kharboucha and her lover are both martyred, and that her songs have lived on until today in the Aita (ayta) tradition.

One of the most wonderful components of the film, aside from the excellent singing given voice numerous times throughout the story, is the quality of the historical rendering of costumes, customs, décor and settings.  Set between El Jadida and Safi, both in the countryside and in the Kasbah of Settat, almost all of the costumes, setting and décor seem very authentic and only the long beards of the Jewish merchants were noticeably fake.  Apparently many of the crew worked for very low or no wages on the film since so much of its budget had to be spent on authentic décor and costumes.  From inclusion of black slaves, Jewish merchants, musical troupes, and various “tradesmen” in the film, all the personages one would expect to find were present, including hunting dogs (sloughi’s) and falcons, wonderfully outfitted horses, a lavish Caid and family, and poor villagers/tribes-persons.  Because the film focused on Kharboucha, very little attention was paid in the script to elaborating on other personae such as the Jewish merchants or the slaves, except that they were present, which smacks of authenticity of the story world.

There are several important cultural components to write about this film.  French colonialism was spreading into the countryside and in an effort to quell the tribal disturbances, the French enlisted sympathizers like the Caid and made them quite powerful in their regions, power which could be abused.  At the time, there was central power in the makhzen, or the sultan’s family, with much tribal unrest in much of the countryside that did not want/could not pay taxes to the sultan and thus were considered in rebellion (siba) against the throne.  The Caid’s role was to quell the siba areas, collect the taxes, and otherwise he could pretty much rule however he wanted as long as the sultan and French colonizer interests were being maintained.  At the time, again, there was collusion between the colonizers and the throne/the sultan.  But this is another longer story of shifting alliances that can’t be developed sufficiently here except to say that the film presages a rebellion against the Caid synonymous with rebellion against the French that culminates in the late 40s.  What is important is that the throne and the French presence are only indirectly felt in the film—through the Caid’s power to collect taxes from his subjects, his power to attack neighbors with only a thin reprimand from the throne, and the Caid’s power to use his own army as he saw fit.  Thus the Caid attacks the Oulad Zaid to steal their sheep and other livestock to replace that lost in his tribe due to a strange epidemic—which he blames on the farmers using Spanish wheat rather than Moroccan—which would be another long story about the time of famine in Morocco where a lot of tribes and villages were forced to utilize foreign wheat.  The early 40s were years of famine throughout Morocco where rationing of essential goods occurred, along with the distribution of goods by the French that would have been overseen by the Caid, probably in favor of his own tribe’s welfare.  The film alludes to many things historically significant but does not delve into them at all, but expects its audience to have the background to make further sense of the references.  This would be a weakness of the film for non-Moroccans perhaps—the lack of real contextuality in which to place the events which seem to exist between Kharboucha and the Caid but are really relative to the situation throughout the country as a whole.

In the time of the story, women had no rights whatsoever, and in fact in face of the Caid’s proclamations almost no one in the story was safe from being tossed in prison for any slight infringement, or even being killed.  We hear from the Caid’s wife that she was married to him as a young girl, a very usual practice of the place and time, and she even gives Kharboucha the poison to kill the Caid whenever the time is right—Kharboucha puts it in the milk traditionally shared by the bride and groom to cement the marriage in public, but it apparently doesn’t work.  However, compared to other Moroccan films, this film does not particularly address women’s issues per se, as it focuses principally on one character and her struggle which does not necessarily extend to all women.  But some components of the treatment of women are included, such as the Caid’s wife’s young marriage.  Further, particularly when the issue is village life, women’s advances were far behind those that might be apparent in urban life at the same time.  If the film, according to the director, is set in the 1940s, at the height of French colonialism, urban women might have more freedom of movement in the urban setting, although ostensibly still they would be controlled by the decisions of the husband/father regarding their mobility and agency.  I believe that it is during this period that the sultan of Morocco allowed his daughters to appear in western clothing, without veil, and to attend schooling, and many other advances for women that would not have been felt in village or tribal life whatsoever.  Kharboucha as a cheikha, however, has quite a bit more freedom of movement and agency; she even chooses her own lover, which is not ordinary in the village or tribal setting where usually the father chooses the husband and the daughter simply obeys.  But the film doesn’t represent her doing anything more than holding hands and listening to music with this lover—which is apparently enough to get her beaten and jailed for a time.  Much like the power of the voice in Les Silences du Palais by Moufida Tlatli, in this film Kharboucha’s voice is her power and she calls in song for resistance to the Caid, and thus in essence for resistance to oppression in whatever form.  This could signify oppression against women, French oppression within Morocco, the makhzen’s oppression of the rural areas through taxation, and a host of other oppressions only alluded to marginally.

One other aspect raised tangentially in the film is the relation between “white” Moroccans and Moroccans “of color”.  In one scene a man declares his devotion to his wife who is dark skinned, and the Caid’s son makes a snide remark about her color.  While others are “white”, she is “brown” and marked as other, as supposedly inferior at the time and place, given the history of sub-Saharan slavery and different treatment of people of color in Morocco.  While many former slaves and individuals of color became powerful in government due to their relationship to seats of power, such as Caids and the sultans and royal families, for a long time there was a perceived difference such that a “white” would not necessarily marry a “brown” or “black” individual unless that individual had achieved some status and power.  The situation has changed in modern times, with much intermixing/intermarriage of former slaves, people of color, and “white” Moroccans, but in the era/context of the story it would have been unusual for this man to have taken a wife of color, though not unusual for families to have slaves of color, as the Caid has a very black man-servant.  Morocco did not abolish slavery until the mid-20th century, although many slaves were not of color necessarily, though quite a few did come from sub-Saharan Africa.  This issue is not often raised in films, being still a taboo subject in Morocco where issues of racism are very difficultly addressed publicly.  The same goes for the presence of Jewish merchants in the film, which exist but nothing much is really developed about them or their real interrelationships within the tribal culture.

Overall, Hamid Zoughi has constructed a feature film with many subtexts but one main thrust which is the Caid’s abuse of his power over others, especially Kharboucha, and her resistance through song and strength of will.  I believe the film could have been stronger if some of the subtexts had been brought to the fore, but the film is what it is, and for persons interested in seeing a historical Morocco, the film decors and costumes are almost impeccable, though again you might laugh at a couple of the fake beards!   The music is awesome, with some of Kharboucha’s original songs, and some developed specifically for the film, but within the ayta traditional style.

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