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Child marriage is at the forefront of Middle Eastern cinema these days, and two chilling films by women directors echo a strong message that it’s time to stop the horror. Following on the heels of Afia Nathaniel‘s recent Pakistani escape drama Dukhtar comes a gripping new feature from Yemen inspired by the internationally publicized case of Nujood Ali, the little girl who made headline news and became a symbol of the movement against forced and underage marriage, when she marched into a courtroom by herself and filed for divorce.
As the title suggests, I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced (Ana Nojoom Bent Alasherah Wamotalagah) shows child marriage in all its repulsive unnaturalness, but also stresses the heroic side of the young victim’s refusal to accept her lot. This self-assured first film by Yemeni writer-director Khadija Al-Salami examines the problem from a cultural angle and concludes with a strongly worded social message aimed at local audiences, which feels quite redundant after watching the drama unfold. Still, festivals are bound to be interested, and the topic is engrossing enough to jump into niches.
More gritty and realistic than Dukhtar, which is told from the mother’s point of view, I Am Nojoom is entirely from the child’s perspective. This increases the nastiness of the drama and, even though all of the rape scenes occur offscreen, may turn some audiences off. As the film makes scandalously clear, Yemen has no minimum age for marriage and tribal custom sees nothing wrong with marrying off girls as young as 8. They are chattel in the hands of their male guardians, who buy and sell them through the dowry system and, as in the case of Nojoom (played with winning determination by an excellent Reham Mohammed), they’re not even consulted about the matter.
The main story unfolds as a flashback to Nojoom’s day in court. When her elder sister is raped in their native village, their farmer father is forced to sell his land and flocks, and move to Sana’a to escape the “dishonor” to his name. But he soon finds the city too expensive a place to house and feed his two wives and four kids. His son is packed off to Saudi Arabia to work, and 10-year-old Nojoom is sold to a well-to-do young farmer. The girl hasn’t the foggiest idea of what getting married means, and she runs away from her wedding to play. Driven to the farmer’s village like a package he bought in town, she’s deflowered that evening in a scene no less terrifying for being suggested rather than acted out.
Rather than turning the men into depraved monsters, Al-Salami takes pains to show them as ignorant slaves of their customs and traditions, which are based on the idea that women bring shame to a household and a girl’s virginity is her father’s honor. Even the compassionate, forward-thinking judge (Adnan Alkhader) has his hands tied in Nojoom’s “complicated” case, and his modern wife expresses misgivings about letting her own daughter get acquainted with a girl who has slept with a man — as though Nojoom’s sexual experience could rub off.
Though it sometimes overreaches itself, the film is admirably outspoken and direct, full of authentic local color with just a touch of poetry. As explained in the film, her original name Nujood means hidden, while the name she chooses for herself, Nojoom, means stars in the sky.
Production company: Hoopoe Film in association with Benji Films, Metksa, Enjaaz, Cornice Pictures
Cast:Reham Mohammed, Adnan Alkhader, Sawadi Alkainai, Ibrahim Alashmori, Munirah Alatas
Director, Screenwriter: Khadija Al-Salami
Producer: Sheikha Prohaska-Alatas
Director of photography: Victor Credi
Editor: Alexis Lardilleux
Music: Thierry David
No rating, 96 minutes
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