Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Stoning of Soraya M

"Don't act like the hypocrite, who thinks he can conceal his wiles while loudly quoting the Koran."
 - Hafez, 14th Century Iranian Poet

The Stoning of Soraya M. opens with the above quote, the movie is set in Iran and focuses on the crimes and injustices (particularly towards women) that continue to occur in small towns in the Middle East. The most prominent of these injustices is the practice of stoning. Islamic law requires that if a man accuses a woman of a crime, then she must provide evidence that proves her innocent. If a woman accuses a man of a crime then she must also provide evidence that proves his guilt. The Stoning is based on a true story, and uses this story as an example of the lack of women's rights in the Middle East.

The story takes place in a small town in Iran, a journalist travelling to get back to France brakes down in this small town. He meets a woman named Zahra who insists that he must hear the story she has to tell about her niece. Soraya was forced into a marriage to a very harsh man, she has four children with him two boys and two girls. Her husband Ali, is a prison guard and he comes across a doctor in his prison who is sentenced to death. The doctor is very wealthy and has a fourteen year old daughter, in exchange for Ali getting him off death row the doctor offers him his daughter. Ali cannot afford two wives, so he decides to divorce Soraya she refuses because she will have no money or food to raise her daughters (Ali was going to take his sons with him). At the same time a man named Hashem (who is the only mechanic in the village) comes to Zahra (Soraya's aunt) and asks her to help heal his dying wife. Upon arrival to Hashem's house she finds his wife dead. After the funeral of Hashem's wife the mullah, the town mayor and Ali decide that it would be best if Soraya worked for Hashem in taking care of his mentally handicapped son. Soraya begins to work for him and saves the money she earns so that she can divorce Ali and be able to take care of her daughters. Ali decides that this process is taking too long, and trumps up charges of Soraya sleeping with Hashem, Ali blackmails the mullah and Hoshem into going along with his charges. After a short trial it is decided by the men of the village that Soraya is to be stoned to death. After the stoning the story moves back to the reporter and Zahra. As the reporter returns to his newly fixed car, he is accosted by the mullah and town mayor, they want to make sure he does not have the tape of everything Zahra has told him. After this Ali pulls up in his car, saying that the doctor was put to death anyways and he was not able to marry the daughter.The stoning was for nothing. The reporter makes his escape in the car and meets with Zahra down the road, she hands him the tape of their meeting and the reporter goes back to France.

This movie is one of the most incredibly stories I have come across (especially since it is true) and it was very well written and directed. Most of the movie is in Farsi with English subtitles and this adds to the feeling of alienation the viewer experiences. We are constantly reminded by the setting, wardrobe and customs that this is very far from our Western ideals and beliefs. The trial scene and the scenes setting up to the stoning help to enhance this. The camera does not go inside the trial, and we only see the men come out and hear the verdict, one of the men who declares Soraya guilty is her own father. We are further alienated by the use of Islamic chants, the villagers who are watching begin to chant "Allahu Akbar," or God is great, in the U.S. there is the separation of Church and State, in the Middle East Islamic law is state law. There is a long march to the spot where Soraya is to be stoned to death and we follow her every step of the way.There is a sense of hopelessness about her march, and her preparation for her death. Soraya puts very little effort into proving her innoncence and the viewer gets the feeling that no matter what she didn't stand a chance.

 Personally, I had always thought that if someone was to be stoned to death it would be by a large, angry mob of people in the center of town using big rocks. I soon learned that this was not the case, it was much more horrific than I had imagined and the movie shows the entire sequence from start to finish. A large pit is dug and Soraya is placed in it with her hands tied behind her back. The people who are to stone her must stand behind a white line and the most important men in her life must individually throw stones the size of a fist at her. Even her sons throw stones at her, one at a time. Finally the mob mentality sets in and the village goes crazy with people grabbing stones and throwing them, at one point we see a woman cheering. When they think she is dead and her body is lying face down in the dirt, covered in blood and surrounded by stones, Ali checks to make sure she is dead. He see's her eye twitch and the mob once again picks up the stones and goes crazy.

The entire time I watched this scene I was horrified, even before Soraya is placed in the pit she is seen dressed in white and she expresses her innocence one last time to the people of the village. Soraya is pure, she is portrayed as a woman who has lead a hard life and just wanted her children to be safe. The people of the village, having seen Soraya grow up among them, and don't seem to care. She is a woman and she is full of sin. Even though it is known that her husband beats her, cheats on her and gives her no money the villagers side with him. Before the trial we meet some semi important characters who live in the village, and each one expresses their opinion about Soraya. For the most part the villagers believe that she is a good, hard working woman but these early thoughts about her are soon abandoned by the adultery charges. When the mullah and town mayor accost the journalist, it is because they know that what has been done in the village is wrong. They do not want the world to know that they committed such a terrible act. The mullah (who is a holy man) gave his consent to the stoning, despite knowing that Soraya was innocent. The final words of the movie are Zahra's as she screams that the world will know what was done here, and we are brought back to the women's rights (or lack there of) in such alienated parts of the world.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Born into Brothels

Born into Brothels is a documentary about several children living in India whose mothers are prostitutes. A female photographer comes to the red light district in India to try to document the lives of the people there and ends up finding children she falls in love with. She gives them all camera's and teaches them photography and so they go out into the streets of the red light district and take pictures of everything around them. 

This documentary won the academy award for best documentary, and it brought light to the lives of the children in India who were suffering in silence. Most of the girls in the group were going to face a life on the streets as prostitutes much like their mothers, the boys would probably become pimps, drug dealers or drug addicts themselves. 

The photographer who is attempting to help them is an American woman by the name of Zana Briski, she has little money, no influence and desperately wants the children to succeed and get out of the district, she knows that an education at a good school is the only way they have any chance of succeeding. She tries very hard to find schools that will take them, but many will not because their parents are all criminals. So Zana uses the children's photography to raise money and awareness for their cause. Finally she finds schools for most of the children and they are sent off.

The most shocking part of this documentary is the end, only two of the children sent to the schools stay there. A few are brought back to the ghetto by their parents and some of them drop out and decide to go home. I was left slightly heart broken and disappointed when i saw this on screen. The documentary had focused heavily on the horrible lives of these children, the children themselves even said that they knew school was the only chance they had and were terrified of what would happen if they did not get out. They were treated horribly by their parents (mostly their mothers and even the other prostitutes that lived in the Brothel). They were called horrible names, they lived in their own filth and were surrounded by men that came and went into their mothers rooms. Most of the men who hired their mothers were drunk and angry and did not treat the children well, and those of the children who did have more than their mother in their life found that extended relatives were not helpful either.

This movie is beautiful, despite that it is well known that India has poor living conditions, i had never imagined that people were not proactive about changing their lives or looking for help. The worst part is that when help did come, many refused it.