Sunday, February 02, 2014

Gathr Previews Series: Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)

My subscription to the Gathr Preview Series runs out in mid-March (not bad for a three-month membership purchased in September; cancellations and skip weeks must have caught up), and I must admit that at this point I'm not certain whether I will renew it or not. Then again, the decision may be taken out of my hands, as the Regent is scaling the program back starting tomorrow, and who knows if it will still be going on when it's time to renew?

For now, it will still be weekly, but the screenings are moving to Mondays, and rather than being in the 500-plus-seat theater, they'll be in a smaller screening room downstairs which I didn't know existed until the staff mentioned it before the show. That's potentially an issue for me, just because there are many other film programs in the area that take place on Monday: The Coolidge's Science on Screen and Big Screen Classics shows, for instance, or the DocYard presentations at the Brattle, or even Harvard Film Archive screenings. As I said back when this program started almost a year ago, it won't do well by making me choose between even some of their more promising features and Raiders of the Lost Ark in 35mm.

As to the new room... Well, we'll see. This last screening was an unfortunate example of the number of things that can go wrong between a venue that doesn't primarily show movies and a distributor that certainly has its own faults: The heat conked out mid-day, so it was just getting back to habitability when I arrived at 7pm, the movie occasionally froze a bit, and then in the last ten minutes just completely crapped out, dropping to the Blu-ray player's menu screen two or three times before the projectionist had to pull out a back-up machine and disc, which looked like it might have been a DVD. This isn't the first time this has happened, either.

I don't say that to imply that anybody involved is doing anything wrong - for the amount of movies the Regent shows, it probably doesn't make sense for them to invest in a full DCP system, and for the scale that Gathr seems to work on, I don't know if they could afford to supply something more reliable than a Blu-ray disc. And it's not as if they haven't tried to grow this program; I see it advertised, and I've heard the folks at the Regent express their frustration about not getting people to come out. I think it just might be untenable. The Regent is out of the way, but where else would you put this program? Sure, most weeks it could fit in the Somerville Theatre's micro-cinema, but that doesn't give you a lot of room for growth.

It's a shame. Tomorrow night's screening, The Pretty One with Zoe Kazan, looks like it should be a little more of a draw, but other movies featuring people the audience has heard of have just played to me and maybe a few others. We'll see how it goes.

As to this specific movie, I liked it, even though it is fairly rough in some spots. I do sort of wonder who the target audience is, like I do with many movies from the middle east: Was it made for a local Afghani audience, or the French financiers? Wajma was apparently submitted as Afghanistan's entry to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, so I doubt it's anywhere near as far from local favor as the "Iranian" films that often seem to be targeting western art houses more than local cinemas, but the moments when it seems especially down on the options available for women locally make me wonder just how well it has been received in its home country.

Wajma: An Afghan Love Story

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2014 in the Regent Theatre (Gathr Previews Presents, digital)

Depending on where in the world it plays, Wajma be titled "An Afghan Love Story" or use that as a subtitle. It's a somewhat ironic one, as those hoping for a romance that brings either cheer or enjoyable sadness will walk away with their desires unfulfilled. Instead, it delivers an unsentimental look at where being head-over-heels can lead in some parts of the world, and does so with impressive clarity.

Wajma (Wahma Bahar) is twenty years old and lives in Kabul with her mother (Brehna Bahar), grandmother, and brother; her father (Haji Gul Aser) works in another part of the country, clearing minefields. She's applied to law school but also has a crush on her brother Haseeb's friend Mustafa (Mustafa Abdulsatar). It's reciprocated, and it seems like just a matter of time before their families officially arrange a match, so they discretely go out and spend some time together unchaperoned. One thing leads to another, and highly conservative Afghanistan is not the best place to be when those things don't happen in the proper order.

What follows is not the entire list of horrors that one reads about women being put through in middle-eastern countries; in fact, upon reflection, it's actually relatively mild, in that one is more likely to be taken aback by the intent behind a blow rather than the physical damage it does. The fascinating thing about it is that, while foreign viewers will likely come away wondering if every man in Afghanistan needs a punch in the nose, Wajma seems like it could actually play to the local audiences that identifies with the likes of Mustafa or Wajma's father without much, if any, alteration: There's one line in which a prosecutor refers to "this backwards country", but it could very well have an unexpected nuance in Persian. Even the most sympathetic male character argues matters of fact instead of morality. I doubt filmmaker Barmak Akram's actual intention was to make a movie about a good man who deals with his slatternly daughter as mercifully as he responsibly can, but that perspective is surprisingly visible and not explicitly rebuked.

Full review at EFC.

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