‘The Silence of the Shepherd’: Abu Dhabi Review

Courtesy of The Silence of the Shepherd
It’s a long camel ride until the final scene sends the message

The disappearance of a 13-year-old village girl exposes the autocratic machismo of Iraqi society

Set in a dusty village in southern Iraq, the good part of The Silence of the Shepherd (Samt Al Rai) offers a biting critique of the paternalistic, macho culture underpinning traditional tribal society and the conspiracy of silence that protects it. But it wanders off-topic like a lost sheep in the desert, only hitting the punchline in the last scene when it finally, and very strongly, makes its point.  An important point, relating to the way the individual’s silence strengthens political authoritarianism, and to a woman’s utter insignificance beside a man’s attachment to his “honor”.  However, director Raad Mushatat’s roundabout story-telling will lose many viewers along the way, earmarking the film for local audiences and those with a particular interest in Iraq and Arab cinema.

After a deliberately mystifying prelude showing the village men celebrating and the women wailing, the film gets down to business. In 1987, during Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror, the pretty 13-year-old Zahra is sent to fetch water from the river; she never returns. On the same day, young Saoud sets off for the city to sort out his draft notice with the army. He also never returns, and gossip begins to stain the honor of Zahra’s family.  Everyone believes they have eloped—a fate worse than death for the girl’s father (Mahmoud Abo Alabbas), a pompous tribal leader. Any feelings he has for his daughter are eclipsed by the blow to his prestige.

And on the same day, the shepherd Saber becomes an eye-witness to a horrifying sight: soldiers herd busloads of men, women and children into a mass grave in the desert and summarily execute them. He is traumatized but keeps mum about what he has seen, refusing even to confide in his wife. 

The search for the missing girl doesn’t start until nearly half-way through the film, with men scouring the desert and women patrolling the road. Since “wolves don’t devour earrings and bracelets” and no trace of her is found, everyone assumes she’s run off with Saoud. But not the audience:  despite the red herrings the script clumsily throws out along with the suppression of vital information, viewers will immediately put 2 and 2 together.

For someone who has been a documentary filmmaker up to now, Mushatat is a surprisingly non-naturalistic director with a distinct bent for poetry and theatricality which his cast of professional Iraqi actors, who come from all over the Iraqi diaspora, act out. They project strong screen personalities, particularly the women who range from the innocent Zahra to the shepherd’s sultry wife and Souad’s devastated sister. Souad himself echoes another Iraqi film,Mohamed Al-Daradji’s In the Sands of Babylon, when he chillingly describes the horrors of Saddam’s prisons. Abo Alabbas is nuanced as the self-righteous father who suppresses his natural affection.

Production company: Film and Theatre Foundation
Cast: Mahmoud Abo Alabbas, Samer Kahtan, Aala Najim, Murtadha Habeeb, Nahar Sadayo, Ahmed Sharji, Inam Abdul Majed
Director-Screenwriter: Raad Mushatat
Director of photography:  Ziad Turkey
Production designer: Tamara Noori
Editor: Mahmoud Mushatet
Music: Duriad Fadhil
Casting:  Ra’ed Mohsen

No rating, 104 minutes

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