A hazardous journey from oppression and confinement to liberation and independence is intimately chronicled in Prison Sisters, Iranian-Swedish director Nima Sarvestani's follow-up to his International Emmy-winning 2012 documentary No Burqas Behind Bars. Tracing the very different fates of the two principal protagonists of the earlier film — but by no means reliant on audience familiarity with the first picture — it's a conventionally mounted but engaging look at some hot-button issues involving the (mis-)treatment of women in Middle East countries.
Reactions were sufficiently upbeat at IDFA, where it was the third-most-popular among the dozens of feature-length world premieres, to portend further festival bookings and one-off screenings at socially engaged venues. Small-screen play also is a given, considering that no fewer than seven tube channels were involved in its production.
Sarvestani worked as a journalist for several years before moving to Sweden in 1984, shifting his emphasis to documentary cinema. Nobody's idea of a fly-on-the-wall, here he places himself directly into the story he tells as a crucial, energetic agent. Along with his wife Maryam Ebrahimi — who co-directed No Burqas Behind Bars and takes sole producer credit here — Sarvestani plays a crucial role in Burqas' Sara, now 21, leaving Afghanistan and seeking asylum in Europe. Having helped prevent Sara from being murdered by her "honor"-minded relatives, Sarvestani invites her to a screening of the film in Sweden and supports her decision to stay put rather than returning home.
This preference is made to seem eminently understandable by a picture which convincingly depicts 21st century Afghanistan as a hellish environment for women, especially those who resist the strictures of theocratic patriarchy. Simultaneously worldly and naive, Sara — her years of bitter experience evident on her saturnine features — haltingly but delightfully adapts to the bewildering freedoms of Swedish society, where women are able to explore carve their own path without reliance on male approval. "I went online and searched for 'sex,'" she confides to Maryam at one amusing juncture.
There's a potential shadow on the horizon, however, in the nebulous form of Sara's partner Navid, with whom she conducts a series of variably stormy phone calls. Evidently an individual of relatively traditional views, Navid's arrival in Sweden is much discussed and keenly anticipated; the dude remains tantalizingly invisible until fleetingly glimpsed at the Stockholm airport — ominously presaged by images of low cloud and lento piano notes on the soundtrack.
"I'm the one who got away," Sara had earlier mused, aware that many of the fellow inmates she got to know so well in prison — as depicted in No Burqas Behind Bars — weren't anywhere near so lucky. The new film's second focus is one such friend, Najibeh, whose fate is the subject of such wildly conflicting reports that Sarvestani returns to Afghanistan and negotiates layers of bureaucracy to discover the truth.
His old-school legwork initially yields horribly grim news about Najibeh, which is then relayed to Sara back in Sweden — her viewing of shaky video footage purportedly showing her close friend's execution by stoning is a truly harrowing moment, rendering its musical underlining decidedly superfluous.
But it turns out that there are further twists and revelations in store, all the way up to the closing credits, regarding both Najibeh and Sara. These are handled with confident aplomb by Sarvestani, whose techniques — often involving Stefan Levin's downbeat, Afghan-inflected piano-and-strings score — sometimes shade towards the manipulative. This includes how he and his hugely experienced editor Jesper Osmund elect to parcel out crucial information — most questionably with regard to Najibeh's supposed demise.
At the film's heart, however, is a compelling and nuanced portrait of Sara, a reserved, quietly traumatized figure who elicits our sympathy and concern from first to last. And while certain startling, dismaying eleventh-hour developments make it seem unlikely that further installments will be possible, Sarvestani's indefatigable resourcefulness gives one certain grounds for cautious optimism.
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Masters)
Production companies: Nima Film
Director-screenwriter: Nima Sarvestani
Producer: Maryam Ebrahimi
Cinematographer: Vahid Zarezadeh
Editors: Jesper Osmund, Phil Jandaly
Composer: Stefan Levin
Sales: Deckert Distribution, Leipzig, Germany (firstname.lastname@example.org
In Dari, Persian, Swedish
Not rated, 94 minutes