Kajarya (2013, written and directed by Madhureeta Anand)
[No. 52 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]
This one is a gripping, and perhaps disturbing story about a village in India where female infanticide is practiced.
Kajarya refers to a woman (Meenu Hooda) whom the villagers believe is the embodiment of a goddess Kali. Unwanted female babies were given up to her and her lover Banwari (Kuldeep Ruhil), where they kill and bury them. Meera is an investigative reporter determined to uncover the truths behind the village as she struggles with the uncooperative villagers wanting to protect themselves and their practices. Ridhima Sud wonderfully portrays her as someone who tries to balance her ambition, life, and her own sense of justice and morality as she makes hard choices in reporting the story.
(Brief aside: She has a striking resemblance to Stefanie Joosten from Metal Gear Solid.)
The disturbing topic aside, we get to see the different cultural sides of India between its highly religious villagers and Meera, who lives a more liberal city-life. Meenu Hooda is excellent as Kajarya as she portrays her with much depth and complexity, especially for someone complicit in infanticide. In any lesser film, she would easily be a one-dimensional “evil witch” archetype, but this film manages to convey the cultural context where such a real-life practice exist to this day.
If anything, this movie has been a great way to bring awareness to female infanticide. When told through complicated human characters, it helps give a better understanding than just a detached reading of a news article.
Sand Storm (2016, written and directed by Elite Zexer)
[No. 51 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]
This movie is about Layla, played by Lamis Ammar who lives with parents and three younger sisters in a Bedouin village. Like in many other places, their culture and traditions are still highly patriarchal and important life decisions are completely in the control of men.
Sand Storm has an interesting take on the lives of women in such a society. Indeed, we have our female characters wants and desires constantly being constantly subverted. But even the male characters is shown not to really benefit here. Layla’s father Suliman (Hitham Omari) is initially introduced to be ostensibly progressive, as he encourages her to excel at her studies and teaches her to drive. But still, he marries a second wife and arranges a marriage for Layla against her wishes; showing that he still embraces all the male privilege that such a tradition provides.
Also interesting is how this film points out the differences between patriarchy and masculinity. Layla’s mother Jalila (Ruba Blal) chides Suliman for always doing things because ‘he had to’, and almost never asserting himself among his peers. All he could do is to impose his will on his less powerful women in his family.
The direction of this movie is great and immersive. The house Layla lives in feels very real and seem to have its own personality. Even a bunch of laundry seem to have its own arc!
The Lesser Blessed (2012, written and directed by Anita Doron)
[No. 50 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]
Being a teenager is hard, especially when navigating the complicated ecosystem of high school social hierarchies. Larry (Joel Evans) is a pretty typical one as most teenage boys go. He has a crush on a girl in class, he gets bullied, he’s awkward. But on top of all that, he is struggling with something bad that happened in his recent past.
The Lesser Blessed stands out among the other teenage coming-of-age dramas in that our protagonist is a Native American from a tribe called Dogrib. Although his ethnicity isn’t an important part of the story, some of the cultural practices and wisdom can be seen as a part of Larry’s life. In particular, the folk tales told by his mother’s boyfriend Jed (Benjamin Bratt).
Dukhtar (2014, written and directed by Afia Nathaniel)
[No. 49 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]
Stories that take place in rural areas in the mountains of Pakistan are really rare. Most of the time, all we know about the society and region are almost always associated with wars and terrorism from the perspective of Western media.
Another thing we commonly hear about from (Western) news is the practices of child marriage among the religiously conservative societies. Here, lives and decisions are almost exclusively controlled by men. Dukhtar offers a new point of view, being told from the side of a woman named Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), and her 10-year-old daughter Zainab (Saleha Arif). When Zainab is being offered as a bride to resolve a tribal conflict, her mother refuses to go along with it. Both mother and daughter runs away, while the father and the leader of the opposing tribe sends people after them. Along the way, the cross paths with a truck driver Sohail (Mohib Mirza), and the three of them make their way across Pakistan to avoid capture.
Sometimes, this movie is superficially similar to Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie that came out a year later. Both movies are about women who refuses to be treated as objectified commodities by their male rulers and escapes across desert plains on a big diesel vehicle, and helped by a random dude they ran into. While there might be valid arguments either way as to whether Fury Road is to be declared to be a ‘feminist action movie’, it’s pretty clear that Dukhtar is definitely one.
As the main plot kicks into gear, Allah Rakhi gains full agency and takes control of their escape. Nevertheless, her character is indeed a relatable, three-dimensional personality with as many flaws as virtues. Even if we didn’t notice the social issues and themes, the movie is still a pretty exciting adventure across a beautiful landscapes of Pakistan.
LuTo (2013, written and directed by Katina Medina Mora)
[No. 48 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]
This movie reminds me a lot of 6 Years, both of which explores how two people who were initially crazy about each other eventually drifts apart slowly. Like most relationships in real life, the thing that drives them apart is never one particular thing, but an accumulation of resentment and unresolved feelings piling up.
Here, Louisa and Tomas are played by Patricia Garza and Juan Pablo Campa. Both of them have great chemistry and were very believable both as a couple in their blissful first few weeks, and also as a couple at their later stages of their relationship who have lived together for a long time and have gotten used to each other.
This is the second movie I’ve seen directed by Katina Medina Mora, the other one being Sabrás qué hacer conmigo and I seem to like this one better. While LuTo is shorter and has fewer subplots, the central conflict of the couple’s relationship seemed clearer to me, despite me (nor Louisa and Tomas) not being able to articulate the exact nature in a few short words.
Divines (2016, written and directed by Houda Benyamina)
[No. 47 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]
For a while, I didn’t realise that this film actually takes place in Paris. I presume it’s because this stereotypical movie convention hardcoded into our consciousness that there is a mandatory shot of the Eiffel Tower for anything taking place in the French capital.
In Divines, the characters live in low-income housing projects far outside the city center. The star of the film is the amazing Oulaya Amamra who plays Dounia, a rebellious teenage girl who drops school and tries to work for a drug dealer. In some ways, the story is almost similar to Fish Tank, being about a young girl trying to find a way out of a shitty life (and an irresponsible mother).
Also amazing is Déborah Lukumuena who plays Dounia’s best friend Maimouna sticking with her through thick and thin. They have great chemistry is quickly apparent in the opening credits which consists of a montage of Vine or Snapchat-like clips of them having a good time.
Underworld: Blood Wars (2016, directed by Anna Foerster)
[No. 46 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]
From the outside, the Underworld franchise looks like a memory cushion that carries the imprints of cinematic trends that have come and gone.
The first movie was released in 2003, the same year as The Matrix Reloaded, and its visual style seem heavily influenced by it. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is introduced to us wearing dark leather and dual-wields pistols against enemies in a subway station with periodically arrayed square pillars. This was highly reminiscent of a scene in the original Matrix. Then the second sequel, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans came out in 2009, at the height of the Twilight vampire craze. It was the same year Twilight: New Moon was released. Then Underworld: Awakening was shot in 3D, during time when 3D releases were very popular.
What trends will this series pick up for its 2016 sequel? It’s probably very easy to guess. Every damn movie today has to be part of a Marvel-like cinematic universe. Interestingly enough, Underworld: Blood Wars doesn’t have a end-credit teaser, which is a strong indicator that a movie is trying to set up a new “cinematic universe”.
As for the movie itself, I think the story suffered a similar problem with Warcraft, which that it had lots of promising storylines with good actors but there are way too many of them. The result is everything feels rushed.