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Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)
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by Jay Seaver

"An interesting (if disheartening) change from Afghan war stories."
4 stars

Depending on where in the world it plays, "Wajma" may be titled "An Afghan Love Story" or use that as a subtitle. It's a somewhat ironic one, as those hoping for a romance that brings either cheer or enjoyable sadness will walk away with their desires unfulfilled. Instead, it delivers an unsentimental look at where being head-over-heels can lead in some parts of the world, and does so with impressive clarity.

Wajma (Wahma Bahar) is twenty years old and lives in Kabul with her mother (Brehna Bahar), grandmother, and brother; her father (Haji Gul Aser) works in another part of the country, clearing minefields. She's applied to law school but also has a crush on her brother Haseeb's friend Mustafa (Mustafa Abdulsatar). It's reciprocated, and it seems like just a matter of time before their families officially arrange a match, so they discretely go out and spend some time together unchaperoned. One thing leads to another, and highly conservative Afghanistan is not the best place to be when those things don't happen in the proper order.

What follows is not the entire list of horrors that one reads about women being put through in middle-eastern countries; in fact, upon reflection, it's actually relatively mild, in that one is more likely to be taken aback by the intent behind a blow rather than the physical damage it does. The fascinating thing about it is that, while foreign viewers will likely come away wondering if every man in Afghanistan needs a punch in the nose, Wajma seems like it could actually play to the local audiences that identifies with the likes of Mustafa or Wajma's father without much, if any, alteration: There's one line in which a prosecutor refers to "this backwards country", but it could very well have an unexpected nuance in Persian. Even the most sympathetic male character argues matters of fact instead of morality. I doubt filmmaker Barmak Akram's actual intention was to make a movie about a good man who deals with his slatternly daughter as mercifully as he responsibly can, but that perspective is surprisingly visible and not explicitly rebuked.

It can't be expressly opposed given the way Akram (who is credited as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, and composer) crafts the film; compared to a studio drama, it feels stripped down, almost documentary-style in how its shot with available light on actual locations. More than that, while the story follows a clear line, Akram doesn't put unreasonably clever words into anybody's mouth or make statements that could also be addressed to the audience. The feeling is that of real people reacting to a specific situation, and while the back end of the movie feels a bit choppy, there's a certain reality to that randomness; even the important and symbolic events feel like they happen when they happen, not when it fits into a standard story structure.

The cast plays into that same no-frills feel; most of the characters share the names of their portrayers, and at least initially give the feeling of characters tailored to fit the performer. Some are quite good, though. Wajma Bahar, in particular, makes a good first impression; we get right away that she's inclined to poke at the limits of a woman can be in this place, even if she's not the sort of firebrand that will reject all of that tradition. It's easy to be fond of her, but not be wholly surprised when other characters move to the fore. Haji Gul Aser is one that certainly grabs the screen as the movie goes on; there's an explosiveness to the way he moves from the periphery to the family house that feels all the more frightening because his outburst does not feel amplified. There is nuance to his performance, even if it doesn't announce itself. He's a good contrast to Brehna Bahar as the mother who is not as severe as she first appears - along with the actors playing the grandmother and brother, there's a real feeling that this is the sort of environment where the men make noise but the women actually deal with situations. Mustafa Abdulsatar does well in making his character the sort of man both Wajma and the audience can fall for even if he seems less appealing later on.

In some ways, the most interesting thing about "Wajma" is its portrayal of what the Afghani middle class is like: Not nearly so well-off as, say, the French who co-produced the movie, and facing a constant threat of reverting to a less progressive state by any misfortune despite the signs of progress. The somewhat ambiguous ending hints that it may not be enough, but the film as a whole does a fine job of putting a human face on the area that has little to do with war.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=24629&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/03/14 02:24:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Barmak Akram

Written by
  Barmak Akram

Cast
  Wajma Bahar
  Mustafa Abdulsatar
  Haji Gul
  Breshna Bahar



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