Act of Dishonour Commentary

What happens when two cultures collide in a context that has already been compromised by decades of warfare and dislocation? Writer-director, Nelofer Pazira explores answers to this question in her first feature-length film, Act of Dishonour (2010). Based on an incident that occurred during the filming of Pazira’s documentary, Return to Kandahar (2003), the film examines the fragile world of a 15-year old girl in northern Afghanistan.

Mena (Marina Golbahari) is about to be married to Rahmat (Masood Serwary), who drives the local bus from one village to another. Their family compounds are opposite one another, but they communicate only through a hole in the rough wall that surrounds Mena’s home. Rahmat places small presents on a ledge for Mena, which she later retrieves and treasures. Mena lovingly lays out her mother’s wedding dress and wishes that she had a wedding burka to complete the outfit. In her village, the burka is used only during the wedding ceremony to increase the sense of mystery in the first meeting of husband and wife. Both families are happily waiting for the wedding day: Rahmat’s mother has made beautiful clothing for her new daughter-in-law; Mena’s father, Khak (Abdul Ghafar Qoutbyar), looks fondly at his only daughter.

But pain and suffering lurk behind the lives of all the villagers. Khak makes his living salvaging metal from the rusted hulks of abandoned Army vehicles. On one occasion, he discovers part of a human skeleton, while scavenging the change that undoubtedly fell from the dead man’s pocket. He quietly and reverently buries the bones of the fallen warrior. Rahmat, on the other hand, does not find moments of peace or meaning in this war-ravaged landscape. He is haunted by an incident from his childhood. When he was barely able to hold a gun, he was forced by the men of the village to use his father’s rifle, in the revenge killing of the man who had murdered his father. This scene, which opens the film, establishes the deeply rooted convention of honor killing in village culture. But Rahmat is clearly not a violent man; recollections of that fateful day have never left him.

Despite the disruptive events of recent decades, traditional life continues largely unaffected. Tensions are resolved in the old way, by village elders. Just outside the village is a UN refugee camp. Villagers who ran away during the fighting with the Russians and the Taliban have slowly begun to drift back, only to find that their homes no longer exist, or that other people now occupy them. The village elders meet to decide whether or not these homes should be returned. The answer is no.  The people who ran away have forfeited their claim. The people who stayed in the face of danger and death have won the right to remain where they are.

Traditional life is most entrenched in families, where men still rule as patriarchs and where women still live behind walls of mud and stone. Unless those walls are breached by warfare, they protect and preserve customs and practices that are centuries old. The contrast between the home and the world outside the walls is visually underlined in the colour palette chosen for the film. Each of the women peeking through an aperture in the wall of her own compound is wearing a brightly coloured headscarf. The contrast with the drab clothing worn by the men and the dun-coloured countryside is striking. It is as though the real life of the community is symbolized by the women behind the walls. Mena, herself, wears reds and purples. The wedding dress she has inherited from her long-dead mother is trimmed in gold.

Only Rahmat, of all the men, wears an embroidered red hat and a beautifully embroidered white shirt. His bus is painted white and hung with garishly coloured decorations. Whether the filmmakers chose to do this because he represents hope, as Mena’s bridegroom; because he is also the only man in the village who does not herd cattle or do manual labour; or because he is the only man, aside from the refugees, with a connection to the world outside, that choice marks him visually as a character to watch. Rahman is clearly different from the other men. And, indeed, at the close of the film, he does makes a choice based on his own emotions and not wholly on tradition.

Pazira’s insight into this culture and her own connection to it is evident in her treatment of the topic. She inserts herself into the plot as an Afghan translator to a Canadian filmmaker (Ben Campbell). However, Act of Dishonour does not become that most hackneyed of genres, “a film about the making of a film.” Instead, the abortive Canadian attempt to make a film about the lives of Afghan village women, carries the freight of decades of equally abortive attempts to bring aid to this and other benighted parts of the world. Well-meaning, ideologically driven strangers descend on the village with a “Plan.” They bring technology. Translators accompany the strangers. Gifts and promises are offered so that villagers will cooperate with the “Plan.” Within this sub-plot, Pazira concentrates less on the insensitive foreign director, who is more concerned with losing “his day,” than she does on the role of the translator.

As a cultural intermediary, Pazira’s character, Mejgan, carries the responsibility, not just of translating the words of both parties to one another, but of making sure that the villagers are not culturally compromised or coerced. In this, she patently fails. Irritated by her insensitive boss and by the patriarchal attitude of the village men towards her as non-traditional, and therefore shameless, she crosses ethical boundaries in order to prove that she is a modern woman who can do what she likes. In taking this decision, she coerces a young girl to do something that first threatens her life and finally leaves her stripped of everything that has given her life meaning.

In Pazira’s hands, this cautionary tale about the exercise of power is as much about particular people caught up in highly localized events, as it is about the re-occurrence of such stories in many places, and over time. Paul Sarossy’s cinematography supports this approach: the landscape surrounding the little enclave of mud huts is almost mythic in its sparse and uncompromising beauty. The people moving across its expanses look small and vulnerable. The open-ended final scenes leave the audience wondering if such stories are destined to repeat themselves forever.

Evelyn Ellerman