'Hava, Maryam, Ayesha': Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Three Women Inside Kabul, Afghanistan.

Angelina Jolie has championed this Afghan fiction debut from documentary filmmaker Sahraa Karimi, which premiered in the Venice festival's Horizons section.

Three women in Kabul find themselves facing their own destiny essentially alone in Hava, Maryam, Ayesha, the fiction feature debut from Slovakia-trained Afghan documentarian Sahraa Karimi (Parlika: A Woman in the Land of Men). In this austerely staged, female-focused drama, each of the titular protagonists is allotted about 25 minutes before their separate storylines are finally combined in a near-silent yet extremely powerful closing shot that suggests not only the difficult position of women in Afghan society but also how Afghan women are taking a stand and looking after themselves. While the three stories are modest and largely familiar, they are also topical and performed with grace and humanity, which should allow this Venice Horizons premiere to travel to festivals far and wide. The fact that Angelina Jolie also recently championed the feature in a statement can't hurt, either. 

It is winter in Kabul and Hava (Arezoo Ariapoor), a regular housewife, has been told to prepare yet another feast for friends of her husband. Hava is heavily pregnant, but neither her spouse (Halim Azhman) nor her father-in-law (Hanif Nezami), who seems always to be lurking about the courtyard or the house, appear to think she might need an extra hand — or that tasks like squatting outside after dark in frosty weather to wash the dishes might better be avoided in her condition. Thankfully, Hava can rely on the humanity of the kind-eyed Akbar (Modaser Amiri), one of two teenage children of Belqeis (Sabera Sadat), the widow who lives next door. Indeed, through the character of Akbar, the screenplay, credited to Sami Hasib Nabizada and the director, avoids suggesting that all men are oblivious to women if not downright bastards. Instead, there is a sense that the younger generation of men represent the hope of a more evolved future. 

At first sight, Maryam (Fereshta Afshar) couldn’t be further removed from Hava’s experience. As the news anchor of a TV station — which Hava watches, in a lovely transition from one story to the next — she has her own career. She’s the opposite of vain or interested in money and she knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to tell people. Her boss (Najib Noori) thus has to hear that Maryam finds an offer to be part of an advertising campaign for a car dealership insulting. But what could be read as extreme self-confidence in the workplace reveals itself to be a façade hiding a much more complex emotional life back home. 

During a long and one-sided, La voix humaine-like phone call in her shadowy living room, Maryam talks to Farid, her husband of seven years. They have recently separated after Maryam found out he was cheating on her, and he is trying everything he can to win her back. Like that car dealership campaign, however, Maryam is having none of it. “You taught me to live alone in this city,” she rages, suggesting how her husband’s extramarital dalliance had the unfortunate side effect of teaching her how to get by without him.

If Hava’s chapter felt like the Afghan cousin of an Iranian New Wave film, with its focus on the lower classes and documentary attention to quotidian detail, the worldlier Maryam’s chapter is more allegorical and marbled with world literature influences. At one point, Maryam digs out her wedding dress from an ornate wooden chest and puts it on, giving her character a Miss Havisham vibe that feels at once appropriate but also very theatrical in a way that Hava’s story so conspicuously isn’t. 

The round-faced Ayesha (Hasiba Ebrahimi) is the third protagonist and also the youngest. Still a teenager, she’s the daughter of Belqeis and the older sister of Akbar, the neighbors from the opening chapter. This provides a narrative connection to what has come before, if once again not a visual one.

Belqeis is a traditional mother figure, with her worries about Ayesha marrying well probably exacerbated by the fact she’s a widow struggling to make ends meet. Though Ayesha is set to become the fiancée of her cousin, Sulaiman (Faisal Noori, with the most wicked hairdo of the Hindu Kush), she has secretly been seeing someone else, as her best friend Marzieh (Marzia Sharifi) knows. Like Akbar, the young Sulaiman is depicted as someone who actually sees and cares about women; the moment in which he asks Ayesha if she’s happy after their engagement ceremony is quietly heartbreaking. 

But Sulaiman’s broken heart is the least of Ayesha’s worries and, thankfully, Marzieh is there to help when her friend gets into trouble, even if she might not go about it in the most thoughtful manner. The girls’ comradeship and interdependence, however awkward, highlights to what extent slightly older Afghan women, like Hava and Maryam, lack female friendships and solidarity in their lives. Hava lives in and rarely leaves the home of her husband and in-laws, while careerwomen like Maryam also find themselves alone when they separate from their husbands. By placing this chapter last, Karimi highlights such differences. That said, Maryam’s particular story, perhaps at least partially owing to the youth and inexperience of the characters, feels like the most generically plotted and written of the three. A little more texture in this particular strand wouldn’t have hurt.  

The three leads are all solid, even if only the youngest of them, Ebrahimi (A Few Cubic Meters of Love), seems to have accumulated some previous screen experience. The supporting cast, mostly composed of nonprofessionals, adds a further verité touch. The production package is modest but uses its Kabul location shooting wisely, especially in the documentary-style first and third stories. 

Overall, Hava, Maryam, Ayesha is an accomplished narrative debut from Karimi, who was recently appointed head of the state-run Afghan Film Organization. Hopefully this new job will still allow her to continue to make films about women in Afghanistan, a continued thread throughout her documentary and now also her fiction work and one that is both necessary and, for us the viewers, creatively satisfying. 

Production company: Noori Pictures
Cast: Arezoo Ariapoor, Fereshta Afshar, Hasiba Ebrahimi
Director: Sahraa Karimi
Screenwriters: Sahraa Karimi, Sami Hasib Nabizada
Producers: Katayoon Shahabi, Sahraa Karimi, Ahmad Shah Sultani
Cinematographer: Behrouz Badrouj
Production designer: Sakineh Gholamali
Music: Saba Nedaei, Ali Tavakoli
Editor: Mastaneh Mohajer
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Horizons)

Sales: Noori Pictures

In Dari
86 minutes