Dukhtar

When you hear about child marriages taking place in rural areas of Pakistan, you sometimes wonder what kind of mother would allow her underage child to be married to an adult man, whether ten or twenty or fifty years older than the child. All too often it’s a woman who was also married to an adult man when she was just a girl, and is powerless to stand up to a patriarchy that demands a similar child sacrifice to perpetuate itself. But in “Dukhtar,” Pakistan director Afia Nathaniel dares to imagine what happens when a woman defies the order of her husband to have her ten-year-old daughter married to an elderly tribal leader in order to put an end to a blood feud.

Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) lives with her ten year old daughter Zainab (Saleha Arif) and husband Daulat Khan (Asif Khan), perched high above the world in the mountains of Pakistan. Allah Rakhi’s most meaningful relationship is with her daughter, who teaches her English words that she learns in school. Her interactions with her husband are limited to serving him food and obeying his instructions, but she lives mostly in peace with him and her surroundings. Nathaniel avoids romanticizing the scenery (though Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is showcased in all its desolate beauty; the cinematography is one of the film’s strongest features) or portraying Allah Rakhi’s life as extraordinarily miserable; it’s a realistic picture of what life is like in hamlets all over the mountainous regions of Pakistan, bleak and strenuous, but not without its small joys.

The action starts quickly when Daulat Khan is forced to visit a tribal leader, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan), to negotiate a resolution to an old enmity that has claimed lives on both sides. Tor Gul forces Daulat Khan to give Zainab in marriage to him, saying that creating a bond between the two warring families is the only way to satisfy the demands of honor. Daulat Khan barely protests; he leaves Tor Gul’s territory with a promise that the Nikah between Tor Gul and the underage Zainab will be performed the following Friday. The speed with which the rishta is suggested and accepted illustrates that not only are girls and women considered disposable property by men, but that nobody’s really interested in changing the status quo.

When Allah Rakhi hears the news, at first she too feels she has little choice but to agree to Zainab’s wedding to the influential and dangerous Tor Gul. But a chance exchange with her daughter wakes her up from her stupor, and she quickly thinks of a plan to escape. Tor Gul’s men, and Daulat Khan’s own nephew Shehbaz Khan (Ajaz Gul) pursue them, and Allah Rakhi and Zainab’s fate seems inescapable in the face of these armed men with no mercy in their hearts chasing two women on foot in their jeeps.

But then a knight in shining armour appears: Sohail (Mohib Mirza), a Punjabi whose galloping steed is a huge Bedford truck kitted out in full truck art regalia: colorful fans and mirror work all over the body, a tiger painted on the back, and a big false hood fitted onto the top. He calls this vehicle Rani and for his livelihood he carries cargo up and down the route from Lahore into the mountains and back down again. Allah Rakhi begs him to help her and her daughter in a scene that shows what a fine actor Samiya Mumtaz is; her face can go from weary to passionate just by the way she widens or narrows her eyes. Though she’s in almost every scene, you can’t take your eyes off her when she’s onscreen. She manages to portray both strength and vulnerability at the same time, which makes her a truly complex character.

The rest of the movie follows the threesome as they attempt to make their way down to Lahore, much like the story of “The Bride” by Bapsi Sidhwa, which seems like a major influence on the screenplay. It’s standard escape-movie stuff, but manages to stay absorbing all the way until they stop at the village of Sohail’s friend, Zarak Khan (Omair Gul), who welcomes them to his abode and promises them sanctuary. We get to see the positive side of Pakhtunwali, the tribal code of honor, which is all too often  portrayed as a one-dimensional cycle of murder and revenge, and harsh treatment of women. Instead, we’re reminded that Pakhtuns consider loyalty and protection to guests two of the most important characteristics of their integrity as Pakhtuns, and kindness to women and girls are part of that too.

This pause in the action is also where the movie takes a meandering turn from the central question of whether Allah Rakhi and Zainab will escape Tor Gul’s revenge. Instead, it turns to deepening the relationship between Allah Rakhi and Sohail, picturing them as lovers who can’t be together because of circumstances. Nathaniel conveys this by having Sohail tell Allah Rakhi the story of how the Kabul and Indus River came to be intertwined at the spot near Attock where they’re sheltering with Zarak Khan.

But the addition of this Sufi-like parable to the story, like the emerging love between the two, feels a little forced. Nathaniel continues with heavy-handed Sufi symbolism when the trio make it to Lahore and walk around the shrine of Data Darbar, watching the musicians and drummers and malangs commune with God, and the inclusion of a few qawwali numbers into the soundtrack, particularly Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Ya Rahem, Maula Maula.” Overall, the diversion into love story territory weakens what is otherwise a credible and enjoyable film.

Still, Dukhtar is a refreshing look at an age-old story: the very human and universal need to escape oppression, as played out within the specific iteration of Pakhtun culture. Nathaniel’s camera opens up parts of Pakistan that remain closed off to most of the world (she’s to be commended for having shot footage in some of the most unforgiving and dangerous territory in South Asia). Her gaze on this land makes you fall in love with both the kitsch and the majesty found side by side in Khyber Paktunkhwa. And the ending scene brings the movie back to its original premise: that the most intense love in Dukhtar is the one between a mother and her daughter. They are the lover and the beloved who cannot bear separation from one another even for a second. If the lover shows the requisite amount of courage in protecting the beloved, perhaps they never will.

Here is the official trailer for Dukhtar, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Toronto International Film Festival 

Pakistan’s Hidden Shame

Mohammed Naqvi and Jamie Doran’s documentary film (airing on Channel 4 in the UK tonight), “Pakistan’s Hidden Shame,” takes a devastating look at one of Pakistan’s biggest taboos – the sexual abuse of boys.  It relates, with sensitivity and compassion, the stories of the young boys who suffer the abuse, the men who harm them with little remorse or guilt, and the small band of social workers, human rights activists, psychologists and medical practitioners who are desperately trying to rescue these damaged boys and keep them together, one child at a time.

Pakistan is a country where sexuality is obsessively repressed, and women have little chance for gender equality – a World Economic Forum report recently named Pakistan the world’s 2nd worst country for equal opportunities for women. The film contends that these two factors have resulted in the horrifying practice of bachabaazi, or pedophilia, as men with sexual needs that can find no other outlet end up abusing vulnerable young boys who wander on the streets, earning money for their families, or having run away from their homes or places of employment.

The idea of bachabaazi was openly talked about in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, where the narrator must rescue his Afghan nephew from the clutches of a depraved warlord. But bachabaazi is neither a wartime phenomenon nor confined to one particular geographical area; it is rampant all over Pakistan, although the filmmakers have focued on Peshawar in order to give the film its narrative anchor.  And one out of every ten children who are abused end up being killed by their abusers in order to keep the crime hidden forever.
Mohammed Naqvi

In this conservative capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, boys are forced to work on the streets because of desperate poverty. Their freeedom of movement and easy access to public places like truck stops, streets, and cinemas makes them the main targets of pedophiles. But this could happen anywhere in Pakistan – Karachi, Rawalpindi, Lahore, or the myriad villages and towns in every province – and it does.

We’re introduced to several young street children under the age of ten or thereabouts who talk with frightening candour about the rape attempts that have been made on them. Then the filmmakers focus on Naeem, a boy of about fourteen who has run away from home after the death of his parents. He has been gang-raped at a bus stop by several men; the pain and trauma of this has turned him into a drug addict, and the film follows him with an unblinking eye as he spirals into self-harm and suicidal impulses.
The film also portrays the efforts of Afzal, a Peshawar-based social worker who tries to help Naeem by bringing him to the day center he runs for street children and getting him off drugs. Afzal’s persistence, compassion, and dedication to his job and to the children he serves lies in stark contrast to Ijaz, the bus driver who admits openly to having raped a dozen children, but claims he is “helpless against [his] desires”.  And there’s Naeem’s older brother, who beat Naeem before he ran away, and says that had he known Naeem had been raped, he would have killed his younger brother with his own hands for bringing shame to the family.

Zia Awan, the lawyer and famed human rights activist, provides a sobering account of how widepread the problem of pedophilia is, while psychologist Rukhsana Malik gives her perspective on how children are first traumatized but then become numbed in the face of the onslaught. And Ghulam Qadri, the Country Director of Save the Children, provides the key to understanding the practice: most of the abusers, he says, were themselves abused as children, so cannot sense any wrongdoing in their actions.

Jamie Doran interviewing Imran Khan

Most Pakistanis would prefer to deny the existence of pedophilia, but the sobering weight of these experts’ words make it impossible to live in such denial.  Yet the experts, and Afzal, the selfless care worker, display a refreshing openness in talking about the issue. So too does Imran Khan, head of the PTI, the political party that rules Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who professes surprise at how bad the problem is, then promises to create a task force to tackle it. With some progressive Pakistanis willing to accept that there is a problem, perhaps all isn’t lost for the street children – but it will be a tremendous struggle to implement laws and make an uninterested police enforce them.

Naqvi and Doran match each scene of ugliness or horror with an image of equal beauty or innocence: the scars on Naeem’s body as he turns to self-harm, versus the light in his clear-brown eyes and the smile on his face as he watches a Bollywood film; the dust-choked streets where pedophiles lurk versus the jauntily decorated buses and the city of Peshawar wreathed in early morning mist; children laughing and larking around as they swim in a dirty, polluted canal. It’s these startling juxtaposition of images that makes the film visually arresting, accompanied by traditional music and a thoughtful narration that immerses you completely in this depressing world.  But the film requires a strong stomach to watch, and few will be able to actually see it all the way through, so searing is its impact.
This is a film that speaks honestly about the scope of pedophilia in Pakistan, but refrains from blaming or sermonizing. Mohamed Naqvi and Jamie Doran have shown tremendous courage in making this film, creating a much more nuanced picture than if they had laid judgment squarely at the feet of any one entity or cause.  The film will certainly cause controversy in a country where most people would prefer to pretend pedophilia doesn’t exist, or point fingers at the West for having a worse problem with child abuse. But for the sake of these ghost children, who are haunted by their abuse, not just their abusers – Naqvi and Doran have shown us that it’s a far braver decision to tell the truth.

HOW YOU CAN HELP:
The filmmakers had tremendous support from Pakistani NGOs “who work tirelessly for the betterment of these children,” says Mohammed Naqvi. “These included http://www.sparcpk.org http://aastrust.org and http://sahil.org. If you would like to contribute and learn more about these groups- please do get in touch. Sahil’s Executive Director Ms Manizeh Bano can be reached on info@sahil.org

Here is a blog by filmmaker Mohammed Naqvi on his experience filming the movie. His observation that absolute, desperate poverty makes for an alternate moral paradigm in Pakistan is one of the most profound observations I’ve ever come across.

Thank you to Laura Kramer at Clover Films for the images of the filmmakers and the film.