Shahida -- Brides of Allah




BERLIN -- "Shahida-Brides of Allah" can be seen as a female companion piece to "Paradise Now" and could even be aptly entitled "Paradise Postponed." A forceful yet open-ended documentary about Palestinian women incarcerated in Israel for involvement with suicide bombings, it shatters preconceived images of Muslim women denied any active role in society, politics or even militant action.

Israeli director Natalie Assouline gets up close and personal with her subjects, giving full vent to their agony as they face consequences of being sabotaged in their mission. The topical subject and its accessible delivery make it a suitable item for knowledge channels and specialist screenings related to Islamic or Middle East studies.

Like the disenfranchised protagonists in search of male identity in "Paradise Now," the prisoners in "Shahida" need to explore and define their roles as Muslim women in inextricably mixed-up issues of country and religion. They appear articulate, relatively educated, confident in their convictions and bracingly human. The most indelible impression they make is as mothers -- one is pregnant and is sent to deliver in handcuffs, another breaks down while hugging her four children on their visit and yet another is legally forced to part with a son as he reaches 2 years old.

Without baiting them, Assouline elicits seemingly candid responses rich in irony. One woman cuddles her son while admitting that she tried to blow up a Jewish kindergarten. Another who transported male suicide bombers is told they killed pregnant women but shows no signs of retraction. The fact that they do not see themselves as terrorists renders them more complex and disturbing.

To offer a multiple-sided view, Assouline also interviews a girl who admits that she ended up in prison because she came from an abusive family and her life got messed up. She claims to be ostracized by other inmates for refusing to attach herself to any political or religious faction. Uncannily missing are accounts of the husbands' reactions to their wives' decisions. There is only Kahira's poignant acceptance of her husband's Islamic right to take a new wife following her sentence.

As the film is an Israeli production, it is difficult to gauge the motives and authenticity of what the interviewees say before the camera and what material has been chosen or omitted. One girl's hesitation to say she carried the bomb because she got fed up with life becomes a telling moment. This is a film ripe with ambiguity, neither wholly sympathetic nor wholly judgmental about the subjects.

Pie Films Ltd./Ephrati Prods.
Director: Natalie Assouline
Directors of photography: Natalie Assouline, Gonen Glazer, Asher Ben Yair, Avigayil Sperber

Running time -- 75 minutes
No MPAA rating