Against the current
Pakistani director Sabiha Sumar is harshly critical of her country's fundamentalism, authoritarianism and treatment of women in the heartfelt drama "Silent Waters."
By JOSHUA TANZER
Like the Indian director Deepa Mehta's outstanding "Earth," Pakistani director Sabiha Sumar's "Silent Waters" examines the destructive extremism and personal betrayals behind her country's independence but three decades later.
We don't exactly know whose story this is until some revelations at the end put the focus on one character. The setting is a peaceful farming village well removed from the nearest big city, Rawalpindi. There lives the young man Saleem with his widowed mother, Ayesha. He and the beautiful Zubeida deny to friends what everyone knows that they're very much in love and hope to marry. But events will soon get in the way of those plans, and change the complexion of the town's innocent daily life.|
In conjunction with the seizure of power and "Islamization" of the country by General Zia in the late 1970s, two radicals from Lahore arrive in town and immediately find fault with the locals' inadequately devout ways. Following his friend Amin, Saleem soon falls under their fundamentalist spell. The believers consider themselves purifiers of the townspeople's Muslim souls, but they increasingly resemble a gang of vicious, racist thugs. When the government allows Sikhs who were driven from the same land during the violence of 1947 to return to their holy sites for worship, the youths spy on them from a hill and snipe at them, if only with words. "Do you know which creatures love Sikhs the most?" Saleem asks his friends. "Lice." They all laugh heartily.
Little do they realize that their town is not as pure an Islamic paradise as they dream. The secrets of 1947 have been papered over but not buried forever, and uncomfortablle truths eventually make themselves known.
Sumar says she was inspired to film this story while researching the real history of women in her country. We hear the predictable righteous complaints from fundamentalists in the film that women are getting big ideas and being allowed to walk the streets with their heads uncovered, thus offending Allah. But we also get a sense of some undreamed-of horrors visited on women in the dark years around independence, which might be lost to history if not exposed by works like this one.
"Silent Waters" certainly has a few faults the dialogue can be somewhat stilted, and in the beginning it seems like it will be another bouncy Bollywood-style musical. But it is also a filmmaker's very serious challenge to the religious establishment and her country's way of life. It ends with a scene in the present day that only begins to answer what happened to the characters since 1980 but still gives us a strong sense of hope however tinged with disappointment.
|MARCH 25, 2004|
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