Cut the cliche

Mehru Jaffer

It seems Islam has become the concern of not just the mullahs but also of the Berlinale. Out of hundreds of stories screened at one of the most prestigious film festival of the world this year, many were about Muslims.

Leading the pack was Jasmila Zbanic, the Bosnian filmmaker, who returned with On The Path, four years after having won the Golden Bear, Berlinale's top prize, for Grbavica in 2006. Grbavica was about a woman forced to bear the child of a rapist soldier who assaulted her. On The Path is a passionate and sweet love story told in contemporary Sarajevo. All is well till the trauma of war catches up with the protagonist and in a desperate search for his identity he finds solace in the arms of a radical community of Wahabi Muslims.

The idea of the film was born after a man from the Wahabi sect refused to shake Zbanic hand in Sarajevo -because she is a woman. Her initial anger turned into curiosity and Zbanic spent many months researching the Wahabi communities in Bosnia whose influence has increased sincethe collapse of former Yugoslavia, after the end of the civil war inmid-1990s.

Zbanic has noticed a big change in post-war Bosnia. Many people have become more conservative, making the filmmaker wonder: why?

In On The Path, Zbanic explores the impact on the relationship of a young and loving Bosnian couple after the man begins to practise Islam in its extreme form. The story includes the reaction of the female protagonist. The pertinent question posed by Zbanic is complex: what does one do when one person in a relationship changes? Do you take his/her path or stay on your own. The filmmaker probes such characters in this marvellously enacted film. 

Born to Afghan parents but brought up in Germany, Burham Qurbani learnt the Lord's prayer before he could recite the fatiha, or shahada. Shahada, the debut film of Burham Qurbani, an Afghan German, also competing for the Golden Bear, deals with the life of three young Muslims in Berlin and their struggle to feel 'at home' in their daily life. The themes in Shahada are about culture, religion, homosexuality and the rights of women, particularly among Muslims. The filmmaker feels that his characters are like himself. They find themselves living within a culture, where they often feel they do not belong. Their identityis twisted and the contradictions in both cultures are often compelling.

When We Leave, a Turkish family drama, distances pre-Islamic customs like honour killings from the 'religion of Muslims'. Umay is a westernised young Muslim woman who has walked out with her five-year-old son on her husband who is a wife-beater. When her loving parents express more concern for what the neighbours will say about her rebellion and insist that Umay must return to her husband in Istanbul, she walks out on them too; that is, before her father fulfils his threat of murdering her.

Directed by Feo Aladag, When We Leave was served as a hot moment of truth in the sub-zero degree temperature in freezing Berlin. It was admired for its gripping style of storytelling. The film created a sense of gratitude among the audience and critics; proving yet again that filmmakers like Aladag do not have just stereotypes up their sleeve. In his first feature film, Aladag makes it clear that many Muslim women are no more slaves of men, and that honour killings have nothing to do with Islam.

Zbanic admits that the treatment of Islam in the media is either black or white. There is a need to talk about the complexity within Islam, seriously, and without apology. Indeed, My Name is Khan was lauded precisely for its attempt to begin such a dialogue. Film critic Derek Elley was so impressed that he wished that the Berlinale's 60th anniversary should have opened with MNIK. "If festivity is the name of the game, why not open with the restored Metropolis or even the Shahrukh Khan megahit My Name is Khan," gushed Elley in Variety during the Berlinale. Director Karan Johar received a pat on the back for bringing fresh ideas to Hindi commercial cinema - with a little less masala and a dash more of reality to its fantasy stories.

The need of the hour is obvious. It is to shout down all attempts everywhere in the world against one-dimensional anti-Muslim paranoia, devoid of nuances, shades or layers of complexity. The Muslim themes screened at the Berlinale are one brave effort in this on-going narrative, and no doubt, the filmmakers have tried their best 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2010

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