Cinema has long been used as a platform for highlighting sociopolitical issues. From the propaganda films commissioned by Hitler to the racially conscious work of Spike Lee, many filmmakers have found success in blending art and politics. Today, one of the increasingly prevalent topics in contemporary political cinema relates to women’s rights in the Muslim World. Within this sub-genre is Dukhtar, the impressive debut feature by Afia Nathaniel.
Dukhtar is the Urdu word for daughter, which is the prime concern of this film. Our protagonist Allah Rakhi – in a wonderful performance by Samiya Mumtaz – has a daughter named Zainab (Saleha Aref) who she cherishes deeply. They live in the mountains of Pakistan, on the outskirts of the city. It’s a place where a tribal conflict has been waging for many years. One day a peace offering arises but it comes with a hefty price. The rival tribe’s leader Tor Gul demands 10-year old Zainab (a chief’s daughter herself) as his bride. Immediately foreseeing the miserable future ahead for her bright daughter, Allah Rakhi decides to flee with Zainab in tow. Soon pursued by men from both opposing factions, they eventually find a Good Samaritan on the road who aids them in their escape. Together, they all embark on this daring journey in the name of hope and freedom.
In this her first major project behind the camera, director Afia Nathaniel takes on a risky venture of her own. Instead of framing her story as solely drama, she challenges herself with the complex filmmaking required of a thriller. While others would crumble under the pressure however, Nathaniel steps up to the plate. The pacing is great, the score energizes the chase scenes and she has a good eye for effective use of space (both between characters and in relation to their environments). The film is crafted with a palpable sense of tension that conveys the urgency of the life-or-death situation at hand. In its quieter moments, it also delivers tremendous pathos.
Indeed, Dukhtar has the kind of premise that you’d normally see in a big Hollywood production. In that regard, the production values are admittedly lacking. As is sometimes the case with low-budget indie films, it notably makes the acting feel a bit stagy.
Yet this doesn’t deter Nathaniel’s ambition and astute instincts as a filmmaker. On a script level, she has given herself a strong story to work with. Despite Dukhtar’s nature as a clear feminist statement, she smartly pares it down to something more basic and personal. In the film, Allah Rakhi never addresses her plight as a public protest against the unfair treatment of women in her society. As such, it avoids coming across as a preachy indictment against the system. Rather, her actions are a response to a personal history of mothers and daughters who have been deprived of full lives due to the practice of forced child marriage. As she replies when asked about her life’s story, “I was married when I was fifteen…after that my story ends.”
The ideologies found in Dukhtar may seem archaic to Western audiences but the guns, automobiles and cell phones place it firmly in the present. It’s an important story brought to empathetic life under the direction of Afia Nathaniel. Coming from a film industry that is still struggling to gain the prominence of its regional counterparts, this debut feature augurs well for Nathaniel’s career and Pakistani cinema.
Dukhtar is the Pakistani submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Click here for reviews of other official submissions.