'My Pure Land': Film Review

Once Upon a Time in Pakistan.

The official British contender for the foreign-language film Oscar shortlist is a contemporary feminist western based on a remarkable true story.

One of Britain's irregular submissions in the foreign-language film Oscar category, My Pure Land is a tense siege thriller shot in Pakistan with dialogue in Urdu. British-Pakistani writer-director Sarmad Masud's feature debut dramatizes the true story of a Nazo Dharejo, a teenage girl who took up arms to defend her rural family homestead against an army of gunmen. Combining spaghetti Western elements with a strong female lead and an inspirational feminist message, Masud's low-budget drama ticks plenty of Academy-friendly boxes on paper, although it suffers from some first-film flaws in tone and structure.

Produced by the veteran British theater impresario Bill Kenwright, My Pure Land is currently touring Euro festivals, with a stopover in Stockholm scheduled next week. While the plot touches on some timely political themes, and the Oscar connection should help boost its profile, Masud's low-voltage thriller will likely remain a festival fixture and niche art house item with limited commercial crossover potential.

Nazo (Suhaee Abro) is raised by her father Haji Khuda Buksh (Syed Tanveer Hussain) to be the social and educational equal of any man, and also to defend the family honor at all costs. "In this world, nothing is more important than your honor," he tells her, "not even your life."

After Haji dies, Nazo's uncle Mehrban (Ahsan Murad) moves to seize the family home and its surrounding land, dismissing any ownership claim by his late half-brother's widow and two daughters. Mehrban initially tries legal pressure and intimidation to evict the three women. When they refuse to leave, he resorts to violence. Eventually he enlists crooked cops, corrupt politicians and local gangsters to mount a raid on the property flanked by 200 armed bandits. "Nowadays men are cheap, bullets are expensive," leers one of these gun-toting men's rights activists.

Masud begins the film in the thick of the gun battle, then builds up the backstory in a series of disconnected flashbacks. This is an effective opening gambit but the strategy soon backfires, slowing down the action with a confusing tangle of timelines and cryptically sketched events. The arrests of Nazo's father and brother on apparent murder charges are never adequately explained, for example, and nor is the latter's suspicious death in jail. The real family history was a more complex tale of feuds and fallouts between rival clans and castes, some of which remain unresolved. But Masud gives us only broad brushstrokes, monolithically evil villains and courageous kick-ass heroines.

My Pure Land does have its positive qualities as well, notably in its poetic visuals and dreamlike detours into magical realism. One strikingly surreal scene features gunmen gatecrashing a wedding party, another frames Nazo against the smoky sunset like Scarlett O'Hara with an AK-47 rifle. Abro is also a strong screen presence as the proudly defiant heroine, with a glint of lethal intent behind her demure gaze and petite frame. The epilogue informs us that Nazo is now a politician herself and (spoiler alert) still lives in the house that she risked her life to defend. As a rousing rebuke to patriarchal power, Masud's assured debut mostly hits the target, even if the overall package feels clumsy and simplistic in places.

Production companies: My Pure Land, Bill Kenwright Films
Cast: Suhaee Abro, Eman Malik, Syed Tanveer Hussain, Razia Malik, Atif Akhtar Bhatti, Tayyab Azfal, Ahsen Murad, Sahib Ahmad
Director-screenwriter: Sarmad Masud
Producer: Bill Kenwright
Cinematographer: Haider Zafar
Editor: Olly Stothert
Music: Tristan Cassel-Delavois
Production design: Caroline Bailey
Sales company: Independent Film Company, London

In Urdu
92 minutes 

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