Most of the modern foreign films that I watch are from countries that are reasonably similar to the United States. People live in apartments and drive sleek cars. They use smartphones and credit cards. They have the internet. And so even if I’m confused by a particular custom or some broader cultural experience, I can always fall back on the knowledge that their environments are not too different from mine.
Which makes it all the more shocking to see a film like Dukhtar, Pakistan’s official Oscar entry for the year. Though it takes place in modern times, the environment is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s something truly foreign.
It’s also quite good.
Director: Afia Nathaniel
I’m going to my best to not sound like an ignorant white guy here. I know that’s a distinct possibility, and I apologize in advance if I sound that way. But at the same time, it’s that otherness that makes the film so compelling for me. These people live lives that are so different from mine, to the point where it really doesn’t feel like a film from 2014. I don’t mean that with disrespect, nor am I implying that one way is even better than the other, but the inherent difference between my world and the one this film depicts is fascinating. From a narrative perspective, it means I was always playing catchup. The film doesn’t stop to explain things to people who don’t understand the culture, and while there aren’t a lot of true cultural barriers, each new location just got me thinking about things, about life and the world we live in.
Because Earth is so, so interesting. Last year, I gushed over The Secret Life of Walter Mitty for showing a unique (and beautiful) location, but that film was more concerned with the places than the people. Dukhtar is more concerned with the people, but I was oftentimes just looking at the backdrops. And certainly the film makes a point of showing some particularly gorgeous vistas, but just seeing a different part of the world excites me. And so I was excited to go from scene to scene regardless of what was taking place onscreen, just because I wanted to see more and know more.
But when I wasn’t playing tourist, I was still invested in what I was seeing. Zainab (Saleha Aref) is the daughter of a tribe chief whose sons have been murdered at the hands of another tribe. In order to bring peace to their tribes, he promises to give Zainab’s hand to the other chief. It’s worth noting here that Zainab is young, only 15 years old (and she looks young). And so right off the bat, I was terrified that this film was going to turn into something about child abuse. Fortunately, Zainab’s mother, Allah Rakhi, is also terrifed by that thought and decides to run away with Zainab on the night of the “wedding.” And from there, the film becomes a chase. And as such there’s quite a bit of running through interesting places and then driving through more interesting places.
But at the same time, the film does get bogged down a little bit by all of the waiting that’s inherent in a chase over a long journey. Once the baddies are tricked into looking elsewhere, there’s some room to breathe, but what happens then? And those moments, where the film sticks with them in between significant events, sometimes drag. Not by much, but just a little bit. And it’s a shame, because much of the film is brilliantly paced. Even the slower second half, although even though the pacing is fine there it does bring with it some different problems. Because every once in a while, it seems like one of the many plot threads has just entirely disappeared. Allah Rakhi and Zainab find some solace, and suddenly everything else becomes irrelevant. There is some tension still, but no one seems particularly worried about safety. In fact, the only way they bring danger back in is by going to look for it.
And as this happens, characters who seemed vital literally disappear without a trace. The word “MacGuffin” springs to mind, as many things that at first appeared important actually have very little impact on the story, but it doesn’t feel like an intentional MacGuffin. Plot lines are brought up and closed, but it doesn’t benefit the grander narrative so much as convolute it. I was wondering why certain things happened at the time and in retrospect I’m still not really sure. Whenever the film leaves Zainab, it gets caught up in unnecessary moments.
But at 93 minutes, those flaws are forgivable. A lot of ground is covered in a short time, and it means that the weird moments are over quickly and you don’t have time to dwell on where it fits into the narrative or why. You just go on and on, following the chase or the calm, and just take in the sights and the sounds. The camerawork is excellent and accentuates just how beautiful the world around them is. And the world around us. Because this is a world unlike my own (and probably unlike yours), but it’s still a real part of the world we all share. Dukhtar is a chance to embrace a truly different culture and see it through its own eyes. Add in just how well-crafted and interesting the film is and you get something truly special.