By Caryn James | James on Screens July 11, 2011 at 1:00AM
The typical documentary about women in Islamic countries has a predictable theme: misogynistic government represses women for behavior we in the West consider innocent. On the surface, Love Crimes of Kabul (premiering on HBO tonight), about women in Afghan prisons for the “crimes” of pre-marital sex or running away from home, follows that familiar, tragic pattern.
Under the surface, though, this enlightening documentary reveals a more complicated, though equally tragic, situation. Most of the women chronicled have been driven to desperate ploys that no one would call innocent.
Kareema, a pregnant 20-year-old, turned herself and her boyfriend into the authorities because she knew they would be imprisoned, and that getting married would be the most likely way for them to be released. It’s a head-spinning twist on the “trapped him into marriage” scheme, and might seem comically ironic if it weren’t so sad.
When 18-year-old Sabereh was found in a closet with her 17-year-old boyfriend, her own father turned her in. She remained in prison even after a doctor’s examination determined she was a virgin, because some kind of anal penetration had taken place.
And middle-aged Naseema, who has killed her husband, has no regrets. He had sex with other women, with a boy, and with a 7-year-old girl, she explains. If the police had caught him he would have been stoned to death anyway, so “I killed him myself,” she says nonchalantly.
We are not in a world of evil vs. good, but of evil vs. last-ditch moral ambivalence and subterfuge.
Focusing in three young women, Iranian-American director Tanaz Eshagian allows them to tell their stories with first-person immediacy as they speak to the camera and to each other from the Badam Bagh Women’s Prison in Kabul.
Aleema, 22, is divorced and has a tangled story. Afraid to return to her parents’ house after missing their curfew, she was sheltered by another woman, who was arrested for taking her in and now insists that Aleema marry her son to make up for the trouble. A woman counselor from a legal-aid society asks Aleema why she’s divorced if she’s supposedly a “good” woman. “A bad husband is better than no husband,” the counselor says, and if the female advisor says that, what hope is there for ordinary women to elude the country’s crippling, sexist system?
Half of the 125 prisoners in Badam Bagh are there for so-called “moral crimes” like adultery, the film tells us. We don’t learn whether Naseema (not one of the film’s major subjects) was counted among those committing a moral crime, but clearly murdering her husband can’t be separated from a system that legislates morality and keeps women in such subservient positions.
Stylistically, this is the kind of straightforward doc that gains its power from remarkable access rather than cinematic flair. In fact, the first half plays like an extended jailhouse interview, until the film later ranges beyond the prison to visit the women’s families at home. The film is less viscerally gripping than Eshagian’s 2008 doc Be Like Others, about Iranian men who have had sex reassignment surgery.
And Love Crimes of Kabul would have been greatly improved by a little more context: when did these imprisonments and trials take place and has the situation changed recently? The lack of context is especially frustrating at a moment when the time-table for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan is such an urgent issue, and when social change and women’s rights in that country are so volatile.
Despite those weaknesses, Eshagian’s film is moving and illuminating as it shows us the faces of women who chose desperate actions rather than despair.