Woman, Honour and Silence: film screening and discussion with Afghan-Canadian filmmaker, Nelofer Pazira

18 Aug

Photo and Text by: Stania Puspawardhani*

**SPOILER ALERT**: This writing discloses the ending of the film.

Mejgan looks furiously at her director, Ben. She has promised Mena, a young village girl to give her a burqa as a payment for playing a role in a film. For Mena, burqa is all she wants for her wedding night. But Ben thinks that burqa deprives woman’s rights. Mejgan madly argues, an Afghani girl who wants to have a burqa is no different than a Western girl who wants to have a mini skirt –the later is to look attractive, while the former is to look mysteriously attractive.

The above story is part of Nelofer Pazira’s newest film, “Act of Dishonour” (2010) which was screened on Salihara theatre in Jakarta on Thursday, August 12th 2010.

Nelofer Pazira is a Canadian director, journalist and writer of Afghan descend.  She is mostly known for her work at “Kandahar” with Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. “Kandahar” is inspired from her journey to return to Afghanistan to find her sister in the Taliban-ruled country[1]. The film has won Makhmalbaf the UNESCO Frederico Fellini Prize in 2001[2].

The beautiful scene of rural area in Afghanistan

The “Act of Dishonour” centred on Meena (Marina Golbahari), a beautiful young girl who lives in a remote village in North Afghanistan. Her fiancé, Rahmat (Masood Serwary), also lives there. One day, a group of film crews come from Canada. Their arrival initiates uneasy contacts and brings cultural tension in the village.

Pazira plays Mejgan, an Afghani woman who grew up in Canada and returns to her homeland, working as a translator in a film project, hoping to sort out her conflicted emotions. Her friendship with Mena prompts the crew’s director, Ben (Greg Bryk), to ask her to be in the film he is making. With the promise of burqa that she needs for her wedding night, Mena agrees. They are not realizing the perils of Meena’s taking part into fi

lm, an act punishable by death.

Colorful burqa on the set of filming.

“Act of Dishonour” opens a di

alogue among two different worldviews, which are the East and the West; it questions the horrifying traditions of honour killing and at the same time renders beautiful scenes of rural areas in Afghanistan.

The film provides a platform for women around the world to find answer on the nobility concept, on the contrasting minds between urban and rural communities, and an edgy look on the search of the purpose of life.

The silence

The film screening and discussion was interrupted by break fasting as the event was held during Ramadhan. The audiences were served kolak[3] and chicken-rice meal on the Canadian Embassy-sponsored event. The discussion which titled “Women Rights in Conflict Areas” then resumed with opening remarks from senior author Goenawan Muhammad.

The writer with Nelofar Pazira

Nelofer Pazira began her talk by saying that during war, women are the silent sufferers of all wars and conflicts. She explains the common role-playing in the traditional society which man plays as the bread winner of the family. So, when the man goes to the war, traditional societies loose some sorts of its balances. This occurred during 1979 Afghan war against Soviet, where men who died for the war would be glorified as heroes, while women have to support the family that was left behind. Unfortunately, education was not accessible to women, which makes it harder for them to carry the burden. Pazira recorded, by 1989, only 2% of Afghani women were literate, leaving 98% of the population uneducated.

After the Soviet withdrawn, a civil war broke up. The civil war was between 15 different political factions where each groups were motivated by ethnic, language, cultural and religious issues. The biggest ethnic groups are Pashtuns which consist of 40% of the community, added by Tajiks and Uzbeks among the rest. There are also Hazara, a Muslim Mongol ethnic who are known as “the negro of Afghanistan” as they are often marginalized. Pazira explained, during conflict, in order to hurt other community or to gain some kind of moral ground, one group would target the women in other ethnic community. They would kidnap and rape women, making it as weapon. Later the group would send the dead body back to her family. So women became the silent sufferer during civil war. When Taliban ruled the country, they brought the country to another extreme. Women could not leave home nor go to school, all in the name of religion.

A lot of women, says Pazira, couldn’t find peace. “How could you find peace without justice?” she emphasized. They can not feel justice because women in Afghanistan are not granted their basic rights.

The cultural practices in the pre-war Afghan have created a concept of honour. Coupled with lack of resources and access to education, women are denied their basic rights. Citing Martin Luther King Jr, Pazira reminds us that “we shall have to repent in this generation, not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people, but for the silence of the good people”. Her film is meant to break the silence.

The talk

The session continues to a discussion with audience, hosted by prominent director Nia Dinata. Here is the excerpt:

[Q]: How is the reaction in Afghanistan regarding this movie? Are they even allowed the film to be shown show there?

[A]: This film hasn’t been screened in Afghanistan yet. My previous film received mixed reaction. Some said ‘oh why do you put Afghanistan in a bad light, we have such a great history’ and this and that…  It was great to have the brilliant history but we also have to consider on what is happening now. There are small pocket of Afghans who live abroad and would call my father and asked how come he has a daughter who is involved in a film, that I give my family a bad name because of that. But in a whole, those who dislike it are so insignificant in comparison with those who like it. But I don’t make film for people to like it, I make it for people to think. So it doesn’t matter for me.

How is the recent situation of women in Afghanistan?

Due to war, women become far more conservative. But there are more girls going to school now than in any other history in the country and we have increased number of women that engaged socially. If you see Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt, they always have a woman wing because they realize that women comprise a large constituency. But I have not heard so far a woman saying that they like or agree with Taliban. Right now, a lot of women wear burqa to school because that’s the only way they can go outside their home. They find strategy and ways to continuously get what they want. This is why I think they are resilient.

We saw in the film that the crews were rejected by the local community. Did you endure the same difficulties as well when making the film?

It is during “Kandahar” that we really-really have difficult time. At that time, we met three villages, saying that it’s okay for us to film, but they keep postponing giving us permit to filming. Later we found out that they actually don’t know what film is. For “Act of Dishonour”, the process is easier as we film in the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. There were a lot of unemployment and many people work with us. My cook was very happy as he has 10 assistants, since if we gave the job only for one person, it would create social jealousy and the price is quite cheap. Thus, we hire 10 women in the village to help cooking. So, it creates employment as well. People are happy. But we did enter some difficulties in filming where the camera was blocked and some people rejected our filming.

Do Afghani women still face the danger of honour killing like Mena? Or is it something that happens only in the village, not in the city?

It’s not just a village thing. I have a woman filmmaker friend who was killed by her husband for involved in a film production. She lives in Kabul. I would like to take the opportunity to talk about honour. That issue happens to many people around the world.

Nobody wants to be made ashamed of something. No matter what cultures you are in, we would like to be perceived as a good, honourable people. In a country where religion, culture, custom and law are separated, we can criticize and think over about what happen in the society. It’s easy when you talk about the concept of honour without violence here, because honour becomes your personal thing. But in a country where all things above are intertwined, you can’t talk about it without people being defensive and said you are infidel. Meena is not just about a village girl. It also happens in other parts of the world. (*)

[1] “Kandahar”/Original title: ”Safar e Ghadehar” (2001). The Internet Movie Database.

[2] “Kandehar”. Makhmalbaf Film House.

[3] Kolak is a typical breakfasting snack which consist of banana and cassava sunk in a glass of coconut caramel syrup

* The writer had previously worked in various media, including Nippon Hoso Kyokai and Aljazeera English. She currently serves as diplomat trainee at Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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Posted by on 18 August 2010 in Uncategorized


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