111 Girls: Busan Review

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Beautifully shot and misleadingly oddball road trip that takes a turn for the serious in examining Kurdish woe.

Iraqi husband and wife team Nahid Ghobadi and Bijan Zmanpira offer a quirky meditation on the Kurdish crisis featuring Reza Behboodi, Mehdi Saki, and Amin Sadeghi.

The bleakly beautiful Iranian desert landscape is the backdrop for a bureaucrat’s journey from the capital to Iranian Kurdistan to address a petition sent on behalf of 111 young Kurdish women demanding the president do something to remedy the lack of suitable husbands in the region. While that may sound like the foundations of a comedy — and Nahid Ghobadi’s debut does indeed have its absurdly comic moments—111 Girls is a serious condemnation of the marginalization experienced by Kurdistan in general. Ghobadi and producer Bahman Ghobadi’s (her brother, A Time for Drunken Horses) name above the title will generate plenty of festival play and possibly art house exposure for distributors willing to forgive the film’s brief running time, but outside fests and urban centers 111 Girls should have a limited market despite being deserving of a larger one.

Riding in a rickety truck through the desert with his assistant Sadegie and young guide Ahorra, bespectacled government representative Nezom Donyadideh (Reza Behboodi) goes from good company man to vaguely rebellious advocate as he tries to locate the women that wrote a letter asking for help with the state of their lives and threatening dire consequences if no one responds. As he becomes more and more frustrated bouncing from village to village, Donyadideh also has his eyes opened to the plight of the Kurds. Initially thinking the letter was a silly girls’ minor complaint, he learns firsthand from the women’s friends and family that it’s otherwise: the few marriageable Kurdish men are flocking to the cities looking for work, the farms are dying for lack of manpower and the communities are shrinking. It’s clearly not about finding a husband. When a farce of a mass wedding is held to draw media attention away from the imbalance and its impact, Donyadideh makes one last desperate attempt to find the girls and stop them from carrying out their ultimatum — a mass suicide.

111 Girls is unsubtle in its message that Iraq’s destructive legacy and a recent penchant for conflict are among the roots of Kurdish distress. It’s not a new idea, but Ghobadi and Zmanpira’s rendering of it is at once beautiful — Hamid Ghavami’s gorgeous, overwhelming cinematography underscores Kurdish isolation perfectly — and oddly humorous. The comedy of errors that unfolds around Donyadideh’s trip is simultaneously sad and simply goofy: the corrupt state police all sport bushy Saddam Hussein-style moustaches and the desert sprint by 111 “donated” Turkish grooms stand out as more offbeat moments. Finally Ghobadi (who also wrote the script) and Zmanpira tackle the role of incompetent and irresponsible media in spreading the girls’ story with little concern for truth and the power of social media — especially in a heavily censored part of the world — to disseminate the actual truth. Donyadideh finally finds the women hiding in the mountains, but whether or not he finds them in time is left to open to debate. The film’s amusing moments evaporate completely in the closing sequences of the film, when the final message is the downbeat one that nothing is likely to change for Kurdistan anytime soon, no matter how many letters are written.

Producer: Abbas Ghazali, Bahman Ghobadi

Director: Nahid Ghobadi, Bijan Zmanpira

Cast: Reza Behboodi, Mehdi Saki, Amin Sadeghi

Screenwriter: Nahid Ghobadi

Director of photography: Hamid Ghavami

Costume designer: Alireza Arayesh, Galim Ghobadi

Editor: Bahman Ghobadi, Nematollah Narenji

No rating, 79 minutes