Wajma (An Afghan Love Story): Sundance Review

A feature that fuses documentary style to narrative realism only partially coalesces. 

Filmmaker Barmak Akram depicts contemporary Afghani relationships as a conflict between tradition and modernity.

PARK CITY – Whether intended descriptively or ironically. Wajma’s subtitle “An Afghan Love Story” is a telling revelation for a film so essentially unromantic. Perhaps it was this twist on expectations that prompted the jury to award the World Cinema Dramatic Screenwriting prize for the film’s elemental, archetypal narrative. Fests will continue to welcome this newly anointed award-winner, with broadcast or DVD offering potential for limited wider exposure.

Wajma,(Wajma Bahar) a modern, middle-class young Afghan woman living in Kabul with her mother and brother, is being secretly courted by Mustafa (Mustafa Habibi), who’s not ready to let his family know about their relationship yet. Clandestine rendezvous consisting mostly of hugging and cuddling lead to a decisive moment and when Wajma discovers shortly after that she’s pregnant, her world begins to disintegrate. “My life is in your hands,” she tells Mustafa. “I’m dishonored. I fear the worst,” but still he won’t accept paternity, contending that Wajma must not have been a virgin when they consummated their relationship.

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Her proud and unyielding father (Hadji Gul) returns from his military posting clearing mine fields to deal with her situation, telling Wajma she’s disgraced the family and completely ruined her prospects. He beats her and locks her away before confronting Mustafa, who denies any knowledge of Wajma’s pregnancy. A consultation with a local prosecutor reveals that it would be illegal under Afghan law for him to kill either of the lovers, much as he’s inclined to. When Wajma’s desperation drives her to extreme measures, the entire family must reevaluate the options for her future and well-being.

Filmmaker Barmak Akram plays out this contemporary morality tale in a lean, efficient style. The narrative necessitates a certain level of acceptance on the part of viewers, since it’s never entirely plausible that Wajma has the liberty to date Mustafa unchaperoned or to arrange their secret meetings in a society where liaisons between young unmarrieds are treated with suspicion. Once the premise is clear, surprisingly little screen time is spent lingering on the lovers’ devotion and any intimate activity is kept offscreen. Documentary-style handheld camera and furtive framing dominate the spare visuals, shot on grubby DV.

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Bahar and Habibi capture the lovers’ emotion without dwelling on sentimentality or the riskiness of their secretive, culturally immoral behavior. When Wajma’s life begins to fall apart, Bahar summons both the grief and resolve to make the young woman’s decisions entirely plausible. While Wajma may not be the definitive film regarding contemporary romantic relations in Afghanistan, even this brief glimpse proves a minor revelation.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Production company: Kabuli Film

Cast: Wajma Bahar, Mustafa Habibi, Hadji Gul, Breshna Bahar, Tahera Hashemi, Faida Raonaq

Director-writer: Barmak Akram

Producer: Barmak Akram

Director of photography: Barmak Akram

Music: Barmak Akram, Matthieu Chedid, Susheela Raman

Editors: Barmak Akram, Herve de Luze, Isabelle Ingold


No rating, 86 minutes