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Fourteen years after the Golden Globe winner Osama, Afghan cinema has another contender in A Letter to the President, the country’s submission to the Academy Awards for its best foreign-language film prize. Through its account of a female official’s deadly tussle with detractors at work and at home, Roya Sadat’s first feature is a simple yet audacious critique of the patriarchal norms that remain in place more than a decade after the nominal downfall of the Taliban regime.
Having made its bow at the Locarno Film Festival, A Letter to the President has just screened at Busan, where Sadat was a participant in the 2006 Asian Film Academy. Taut and topical, if at times melodramatic, the film should travel well both on its own merits and as part of an emerging crest of female Afghan artists making their voices heard, following Shahrbanoo Sadat’s Danish-funded Cannes prize-winner Wolf and Sheep.
Then again, what the two filmmakers share are merely a surname (they are not related) and a nationality. Whereas Shahrbanoo Sadat works with folklore and fantastical narrative, along with an emphasis on children and animals in a rural setting, Roya Sadat’s is a gritty film that spells out her views and grievances as directly as possible. This is hardly a surprise from a director who studied law and politics at the University of Herat, cut her teeth making documentaries, and runs a production house making TV series.
The film opens with a shackled Soraya (Leena Alam) in a police carrier, rumbling over dirt roads on its way somewhere out of town. Cut to a well-appointed office, where the titular letter reaches the table of the Afghan president (Mamnoon Maqsoudy). It’s a plea as thick as a book, in which Soraya documents her descent from a well-respected government investigator to a disowned convict on death row.
A brief debate ensues about whether the president should tackle the case. While his all-male entourage is dismissive, the first lady (Zareen Nory) insists her husband should at least read the letter. From there, Soraya’s account unfolds in long flashbacks, punctuated by the president’s occasional reflections and discussion with his aides and wife. The climactic turn comes when he decides whether to issue a reprieve amidst the chaotic state of things.
Soraya’s downfall begins with an assignment at a village, when she stops an old tribesman (Fazl Mohamed) from killing his young wife (Farzana Nawaby) for adultery. Whizzing the girl away and then refusing steadfastly to hand her back to the man and his murderous clan (led by a brutal warlord played by Abdul Qader Aryaee), Soraya finds herself under pressure to give in first from her supervisor (Sayed Miran Farhad) and then, perhaps more frustratingly, her husband Karim (Mahmoud Aryoubi).
It turns out that Karim is under the thralls of his politically well-connected father (Asad-Ollah Tajzai), who feels his daughter-in-law’s controversial intervention is imperiling the family name. After an alcohol-fueled brawl with Soraya, Karim falls through a glass pane at home and to his death, an incident the protagonist’s detractors use to remove her from power and from society in general.
The film’s fury isn’t just directed at the obvious villains in the piece. It argues that the system itself is sick and that oppression sometimes manifests itself even through men seemingly armed with good intentions. For example, Soraya’s underling Behzad (played by Azia Deildar, who also wrote the screenplay) is an idealistic young man, but his infatuation with her borders on the insane. His photographs and paintings of Soraya — most of them produced without her consent, thus becoming a symbol of her becoming an unwilling object of desire — eventually fall into the hands of her enemies.
Famous for both her acting and her activism for women’s rights causes in Afghanistan, Alam delivers a complex and powerful turn as Soraya, channeling the disparate roles a woman has to play in a society where female professionals are still met with derision or even outright hostility. Her performance basically carries A Letter through its occasional melo-tinged bumps, and her fire helps bring Sadat’s message into sharp focus.
Production companies: Roya Film House
Cast: Leena Alam, Aziz Deildar, Mamnoon Maqsoudy, Mahmoud Aryoubi
Director: Roya Sadat
Screenwriter: Aziz Deildar
Producers: Leena Alam, Aziz Deildar, Mamon Maghsodi
Executive producers: Ahmad Shakib Mosavi, Baktash Parwani
Director of photography: Behrouz Badrouj
Production designer: Asad Akhtari
Music: Zabih Mahdi
Editing: Razi Kashi, Fareid Frahmand
Sales: Asian Shadows
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