Think Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966) meet Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011) and you are halfway there. Jordanian filmmaker Amjad Al Rasheed’s debut feature is a heart-ripping and humanistic film guaranteed to touch people of all religions and nationalities. It portrays a woman who falls through the cracks of her country’s legal system following her husband’s sudden death. She is left at the mercy of unscrupulous males, fighting for her hard-earned assets, her daughter and her humanity.
Our protagonist is called Nawal (Mouna Hawa), a woman aged around 30 and married to Adnan, with whom she has a small daughter Nora. They live in a very small apartment in the suburbs of Amman. Their only possessions are the small apartment in which they live, and a pickup truck. They are both in full time employment. Nawal works as a nurse for the old woman suffering from advanced Alzheimers, in an upper-class family household.One day, Adnan does not wake up, and Nawal is left to fend for herself.
Her greedy brother -n-law Rifqi (Hitham Omari) has little interest in her tragic predicament. He argues that Adnan owed him four instalments of the pickup truck, and demands that the widow makes the payments immediately. Nawal too has a brother, but – instead of supporting his own sibling – he sides with Rifqi,. A strange type of toxic male complicity. Best friends through oppression. This is symptomatic of a society that uses subtle and also not-so-subtle mechanisms in order to subjugate female citizens. The rationale is perverse: the blame always lies with the woman, who should abide by tradition without questioning the orthodox rules imposed on them. Narwal’s future is defined by orthodox values with little regard for her dignity.
The bizarre Jordanian legal system serves only to reinforce this. Male judges make life-changing decisions in no time using their own interpretation of Sharia. They decide that Nawal to give half of her possessions to Rifqi simply because she does not have a male heir. This is despite the fact that she paid for the house with money from her work and inheritance, and that she would be left homeless should she have to sell the house. So so she argues that she’s pregnant. Giving birth to a baby boy is the only way of keeping her home and her only daughter (uncle Rifqi is already seeking custody).
But how could she make this fake pregnancy work in the long term? Surely people would question why her belly hasn’t grown after all couple of months. She keeps all options open, including meeting random men on dating apps, someone who could impregnate her just in time. A fellow nurse too might be willing to give a little “hand”:, yet his affection is genuine and that could interfere with Nawal’s plans. She isn’t looking for for love after all. She merely wishes to keep her house and her daughter.
Due to her mounting debts and financial issues, Nawal carries on with her work as usual. She asks her blingy, upper-class boss Souad (Salwa Nakkara) for an advance payment, but her request is turned down. Souad’s daughter Lauren (Yumna Marwan) is a sexually liberated young woman who shuns her mother’s advice on relationships. She is pregnant and despises her husband and the country’s archaic traditions. She wishes to terminate her pregnancy. Nawal and Lauren bond through their complicity in oppression, even if their ordeals are diametrically opposed. While Nawal wishes to be pregnant, Lauren rejects her unborn baby. Lauren expresses her sympathy, while also slamming the patriarchy: “lying is haram, sex is haram, abortion is haram. Everything in haram. In reality, what they are doing to you is the real haram”. Nawal comes up with an idea that could rescue both women from their misery, but the repercussions could be disastrous should the plans go awry.
Entirely devoid of a music score, Inshallah a Boy instead allows the brewing tension and the frank performances to elicit strong reactions from the audience. There are unexpected twists, however nothing of epic proportions. This is a movie that relies on subtle yet very poignant elements. A mouse inhabiting Nawal’s kitchen is constantly haunting our protagonist and her daughter. The moment she realises that the predicament of the animal is very similar to her own – both are terrified of sudden eviction – she breaks down in tears. And she eventually gets behind the wheel of the pickup truck, despite having no driving skills. This is her big moment of redemption and the movie’s most powerful scene. This is a woman taking control of her life, even if the clunky mechanisms and procedures over which she has limited command do not allow her to forge ahead smoothly. Genuinely affecting. Bring your hankies!
Inshallah a Boy shows at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year at the Critics’ Week of Cannes. The 38-year-old director is a name to watch out for.