Culture

‘I Am Nojoom’: The villainy of poverty and ignorance

DUBAI: Earlier this year the international media imagination focused upon the story of a young Pakistani woman named Malala Yousafzai. Having survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban, the 17-year-old women’s education advocate became history’s youngest Nobel Prize laureate, sharing the award with Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi.

Earlier this century another, more soft-spoken, story of a young woman’s resilience in the face of narrow-minded tradition and thuggish patriarchy had emerged from the Arab world.

The 2010 autobiography “I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced,” co-written in French with Delphine Minoui and translated into English by Linda Coverdale, recounts the harrowing tale of a young Yemeni woman named Nujood Ali.

Born in the village of Bin, where cash crop coffee farming was the sole means of livelihood, she and her family migrated to Sanaa, where, at the age of 10, she was forced to marry a 30-year-old man, who subjected her to a degrading life of menial and sexual servitude.

After the intervention of a human rights lawyer, a liberal-minded Yemeni qadi (judge) and a bit of international media attention, Nujood was eventually rescued from this existence, granted a divorce and freed to return to a childhood that now included an education.

The film’s virtues don’t lie in the technical prowess with which the story is told

Yemeni writer-director Khadija al-Salami has adapted Nujood Ali’s story to the big screen with “I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced.” The filmmaker’s sophomore feature had its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival this week, where it emerged as Best Film in the Muhr Features contest.

Competing in a field of 17 films that included art house-inflected fictions and “creative documentary” as well as more classical-looking documentaries, Salami’s works address social and cultural issues, upon which DIFF’s documentary juries have tended to smile over the years.

“I Am Nojoom” opens with Nojoom (Reham Mohammed) leaving her husband’s house one morning to buy bread. In the midst of her errand she decides to use the money to take a taxi to Sanaa’s law court.

After he adjourns court for the day, she begs a young qadi (Adnan Alkhader) to grant her a divorce. Surprised to hear that this prepubescent young girl is married, he hears her out. Her efforts to explain her reasons for wanting a divorce provide a framing narrative for a life story that moves from idyllic childhood innocence to daytime labor and rape at night.

The film’s virtues don’t lie in the technical prowess with which the story is told.

Nojoom's story moves from idyllic childhood innocence to daytime labor and rape at night. (Photos courtesy of DIFF)
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The filmmaking is naïve at the best of times. Putting aside some nicely framed photography of the striking Yemeni landscape and Reham Mohammed’s intense rendering of Nojoom – the character’s two names stem from her sister Najla suggesting she be named Nujoum (stars) while her father preferred Nujoud (hidden) – the film’s production values don’t measure up to that of sophisticated television drama.

“Nojoom” is an important film because of the complex social issues Nujood Ali’s story embodies.

As Salami’s film is at pains to point out, child marriage is a custom rooted in Yemeni tribal mores, which, by their nature, trample upon the individual rights that women and children elsewhere in the world can take for granted.

Insofar as other facets of rural cultural in the Arabian Peninsula, and the region generally, have reinforced these problems – from a rural gun culture that symbolizes the profound shortcomings of the educational system to the widespread chewing of qat – “Nojoom” also touches upon those matters.

It’s evident that the filmmaker’s purpose is less to make a Yemeni film for the outside world – let alone the art house market – than it is to expedite social change in her country. The film’s language isn’t inappropriate for the audience to whom she seeks to speak.

The film’s virtues don’t lie in its technical prowess. (Photos courtesy of DIFF)
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Nojoom’s story is told in two installments. The first, disclosed during her conversations with the qadi, relates the outrageous facts of her recent history. The second, emerging during her father’s court testimony, discloses the broader narrative of rural poverty and ignorance in which Nojoom’s story is embedded.

In Nojoom’s story, it’s clear that her older sister Najla was raped by a neighbor’s son, for instance, but it only emerges during her father’s version of the story how this attack eventually drove the family to migrate to Sanaa. There an impoverished life as a day laborer forced her father to sell Nojoom into marriage and his little boy Sami into indentured labor in Saudi Arabia.

While the film’s heavy melodramatic treatment of this young woman’s tragic story renders most of the film’s adult men (and women) as villains in an R-rated fairy tale, the court testimony serves to elevate the discussion beyond finger-pointing.

By the time the film ends, it’s obvious that the real villains in Nojoom’s story are poverty and ignorance.

For more information on DIFF’s 2014 winners, seewww.dubaifilmfest.com.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 18, 2014, on page 12.

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