Joshua Reviews Barmak Akram’s Wajma: An Afghan Love Story [PIFF 2014 Review]


While it may be in headlines around the world for various political and sociological reasons, few, if any, regions of the world have been as fruitful and rewarding a cinematic landscape as that of the Middle East. Be it the various Iranian auteurs like Panahi and Kiarostami or the small, up and coming voices directly challenging the backward social ideology of their native region, this part of the world has become the breeding ground for some of the greatest and most entrancing bits of cinematic neo-realism that the film world has seen since this type of cinema’s golden age.

After a run at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a new drama out of Afghanistan has hit Portland for this year’s PIFF proceedings, and entitled Wajma: An Afghan Love Story this continues in the region’s storied tradition of neo-realist meditations on the battle between generations, this time taking a keen eye on modern day romantic relationships. The film introduces us to a young woman named Wajma, a middle-class woman in Kabul who just so happens to be sneaking around with her main squeeze, Mustafa, a man seemingly uninterested in taking their relationship public, let alone to the next level. However, when these secret dates ultimately lead Wajma to get pregnant, her life, and the film, take a decidedly dark turn. With her father returning home after time away defusing mines, disgrace is placed upon her family, and what follows is morality play that is both unsentimental and completely unforgettable.

Visually, the film owes much of its style to the Middle Eastern canon before it. An intimate blend of neo-realist and faux-documentary styles, the camera rarely wavers, only deciding to not show us the events that ultimately lead to Wajma becoming pregnant. The camera is unflinching, particularly as the film becomes more and more bleak near the final half of the picture, proving writer/director/cinematographer/multi-hyphenate Barmak Akram as a voice to be reckoned with. Not entirely a new or singular story (again, this is a subject various Middle Eastern filmmakers have mined), the energy given to the film by the gorgeous, Earth-toned photography and kinetic camera work is a real stand out aspect of this beautifully composed motion picture. The digital photography is really quite stunning, particularly when used in close up. Each performer gives quite a bit of physicality to their roles, and the camera is at its most powerful when it locks in on these said performances.

Led by Wajma Bahar and Mustafa Habibi, the performances here are truly rather superb. Both give themselves over to these characters, turning them into flesh and blood people, and while we don’t see much of their courtship or find much truth in the ability for this relationship to go relatively undetected, their chemistry is undeniable, and the moments they share near the opening of the picture only amp up the drama near the back end of the film. Hadji Gul is the show-stealer here as the father in the film, an easily hated character who is given a sense of raw vitality by Gul. It’s not a character one finds much to relate to, but the fact that the film never seems to judge the character is really quite intriguing. Not a bad man due to his own issues, the father here has had this sense of tradition and familial integrity thrust upon him by a world so socially backward that if the father were to find the two in bed together, he would have grounds to kill one or both of them. That’s the type of civilization this film deals with, and it attempts to show us just what it’s like to find love in a culture where that isn’t really much of an option.

While it may not be a film saying much “new” with regards to modern relationships in the Middle East, the performances here are worthy of the nearly 90 minute runtime, and Akram is a filmmaker so assured in his own aesthetic that it becomes a truly beautiful and utterly unflappable piece of drama.

Upcoming Screenings:

Fri, Feb 7, 2014 at 8:30 PM (Fox Tower)

Sun, Feb 16, 2014 at 3 PM (Cinemagic)

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.