When the Taliban closes down the hospital in which she works, a desperate Afghan war widow disguises her daughter as a boy so that (s)he can earn enough money to fend off starvation…
The first feature produced in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban is both a neo-realist polemic and a political fable. By opting for grainy visuals and employing a non-professional cast, director Siddiq Barmak achieves a reportage feel that exposes the ruling regime's religious extremism and repressive misogyny, while also capturing the chilling sense of abused power and corrupted innocence that underlies the best folk tales.
Indeed, the grandmother character's repetition of the myth of the gender-changing rainbow casts a de-romanticised Arabian Nights aura that is reinforced by the cruelty of the school henchman, the cynicism of the sentencing judge and the lascivious hypocrisy of the ogre-like mullah, who imprisons his many wives in a forbidding bastion in the wilderness.
With her hair shorn to resemble Maria Falconetti in Dreyer's The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (another story in which a waif in male attire falls foul of fanatical clerics), Marina Golbahari conveys the terror of a naive 12 year-old that contrasts strongly with the bitter resentment of her tragedy-racked mother (Sahar).
The performances are credible, but set-pieces like the water-cannoning of a procession of burkha-clad protesters are also impeccably judged.
A courageous, if understandably manipulative, study in tyranny and human misery that is guaranteed to provoke entrenched reactions.
Reviewed by David Parkinson