Overview: When her ten year old daughter is offered as a bride to a local village chieftain, a mother flees with her child. Geo Films; 2015; Not Rated; 93 Minutes.
Daughter: In form, Dukhtar is a standard chase film, a format that allows the plot, structure, and conflict to be one of the same. With the central narrative so cleanly templated, it becomes necessary for Writer/director Afia Nathaniel to frame her narrative within the right details to establish and maintain interest. Why are the characters running? Who is giving pursuit? Where happens if the heroes get caught? The background and socio-geographic context of the story provide Dukhtar with its necessary weight. Even through a scope of cultural relativity, it is established very early that young Zainab (Saleha Aref) is not ready, biologically or psychologically, to be a wife. Her mother Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) also lives within a forced marriage with a village chieftain, her history providing further scrutiny to the tradition and fueling her personal motivation for escape. The third factor informing the pursuit is the offered marriage, wherein two local chieftains have worked out the conditions of peace for a longstanding feud between villages, and yet, once the opportunity to escape is presented, this comparison of outcomes is not treated as a moral dilemma, the value of the singular young life (and subsequently, the contest of this oppressive social practice) become steadfastly positioned.
Mother: What transpires is a fast paced thriller which, with its unbearably assured pacing, a desperate score, and astoundingly precise editing, earns comparison to the best of the genre. However, what makes Dukhtar exceptional against type is the human terms under which pursuit is given. Zainab is never aware of the gravity or her situation, her naivete on display in her mistaken perception of the act of procreation. Her performance is that of nervous and innocent oblivion. Her mother, inversely, perhaps more than anyone, understands what’s at stake; she is not just fighting to save her child’s future, but she is rebelling against a tradition that has robbed countless women (herself included) of a sacred liberty. But it is impossible to forget that Allah is not conditioned or prepared for this quest. Even with her distinct recognition that failure will mean death for both mother and daughter, and for her certain knowledge that the odds are heavily against them, Allah is self-assured of her choice on a second-by-second basis. Allah is not a superhero or even a standard action hero. She is a mother who, in the best interest of her daughter, makes heroic choices, mines into the heroic depths of her will, and pushes onward.
Pakistan: As Zainab, Allah, and their unlikely accomplice Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) move through the mountainside roadways of Pakistan, Nathanial and cinematographers Armughan Hassan and Najaf Bilgrami take the opportunity to explore the story from wide landscape shots, displaying the breathtaking geography of Pakistan. For the viewer, the landscape here is objectively astounding, but for the film’s characters, it is dangerous and uncertain. Watching Dukhtar, neither of these interpretations obscures the other. It feels very important that Nathaniel has presented the land in both terms of understanding.
Overall: With Dukhtar, Afia Nathaniel has offered a first-rate thriller that never once mishandles its urgency or social importance.
Dukhtar is a featured film at this year’s Silk Screen Film Festival in Pittsburgh, PA, celebrating 10 years of Asian American film, dance, art and music. The festival takes place July 10th-19th. Tickets and additional information can be found here.