Thursday, May 08, 2008

IFFB 2008: Frontrunner

I wish I was able to get my thoughts about something sorted out much quicker than I do. Whenever there's a Q&A or other discussion about a film right after seeing it, I find I have no questions. It took me a bit of time to figure out just why I didn't think that much of Frontrunner, although someone in the audience did ask just what Dr. Falal's platform was. That's when I found out that leaving such things out was a deliberate decision.

It makes sense, although I think it makes the film weaker. Ms. Williams said they wanted to focus on what it was like for a woman to be running for office in Afghanistan, and that's a laudable goal. I think we could have learned more from looking at this woman and her platform more closely. Put it this way - if a similar documentary were being made about the 2008 U.S. election, how compelling would we find Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama if their only apparent selling points were being female or black? Not very, right?

I also thought that this film presents a much tamer Afghanistan than Beyond Belief. I wonder if it's a matter of Frontrunner mostly being filmed in Kabul while Beyond Belief went to smaller villages; perhaps the cities are less conservative and more cosmopolitan.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2008 at Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The ending of Frontrunner is a matter of the public record, so I don't feel like I'm spoiling much of anything by saying that it does not have a triumphant fairy-tale ending: In Afghanistan's first democratic ever, after the ouster of the ouster of the Taliban, a woman is not elected president. But, to be blunt, we're not given a compelling case that she deserves to be.

That woman is Dr. Massouda Jalal; as the movie starts, we're shown that she was a surprising second-place finisher when a group of Afghani representatives got together to choose an interim president after the fall of the Taliban government. Four years later, she runs in the general election. She is the only woman on the nineteen-candidate ballot, and as such faces problems that the others don't, such as soldiers removing her campaign posters and religious leaders who flatly declares that the Koran forbids a woman from being in a position of authority over men, making her potential election sacreligious. Jalal points out other women who have led Muslim nations, but it's clear that some of her foes are not to be dissuaded, making it an uphill battle.

That Jalal is a woman running for president of a nation that until very recently had codified the oppression of women into law is remarkable, but it's far from the only remarkable thing going on. Consider that not only has this nation never had a democratic election before, but it has an extremely high rate of illiteracy. Experts from oversees have to be brought in to advise not only the candidates but the officials running the election. Ballots have to include pictures. The incumbent has an even greater advantage than usual; he appears on television every night, has international backing, and what seems like an almost unlimited budget compared to Jalal and others who are running their campaigns from their living rooms; Dr. Jalal's young children regularly running in and jumping on her lap during meetings. The election itself serves as a referendum on the very belief in democracy; hints of impropriety could cost the nation its faith in the process.

Where the film ultimately disappoints is in presenting Dr. Jalal's candidacy as much more than a novelty. She's an intelligent, capable person, but we never get a sense of what her individual accomplishments are such that she, rather than some of the other educated women we see, is a viable candidate for office. Director Virginia Williams takes great care to omit anything that would tell us about her platform or that of the other candidates. Her goal, I suppose, is to keep the focus on the challenges faced by a female candidate in this country, but it backfires; we wind up with "vote for the woman" and questionable logic along the lines of "well, men were in charge during the decades of war..." There's also something disheartening about her assertion that if she fails, she'll run again and again and again; it presents her as a candidate with no purpose other than running for office, which is hardly inspiring.

That's especially frustrating, because it's a very nicely made documentary otherwise. Williams has great access to her principle subject and the later parts of the film are very interesting: Voting irregularities start appearing, leading to Dr. Jalal having to engage in some politics in terms of how she'll react to the situation. It's the sort of in-the-trenches documentation of the nation's emerging political process that would have been much more interesting than the bland praise of her female-ness and motherliness we get.

Williams must have footage of that, but we rarely get to see anything that makes Dr. Jalal individual and interesting. That's not to diminish her accomplishment; even the 1.1% of the vote she did manage was remarkable. It might have seemed even more so if we'd gotten a chance to know her and her views a little better.

Also on EFC.

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