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In Flames

Mother and daughter unite against the dark and oppressive forces of the patriarchy, in this feminist ghost story from Pakistan - from the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival

Twenty-five year old Mariam (Ramesha Nawal) lives with her mother Fariah (Bakhtawar Mazhar) and her younger brother Bilal (Jibraan Khan). The story begins with her grandfather’s funeral, and the family desperately attempting to resume normality. Mariam becomes anxious and disorientated after a stranger inexplicably throws a brick through her car window, smashing it into pieces. A kind man of around her age Asad (Omar Javaid) tries to help her to locate the culprit, and the two soon begin dating. Despite the blooming romance, Mariam continues her descent into paranoia. Ghost apparitions soon begin to haunt her

Canadian-Pakistani filmmaker Zarrar Kahn’s debut feature has a touch of socio-political commentary. The sudden bereavement means that the the family assets – their apartment, their vehicle and even their savings – could go to Mariam’s extended family. That’s because he did not have any male heirs (Mariam’s father passed away earlier). The topic of male in-laws seizing the assets of all-female families is a common problem for women in many Arab nations. It is the central pillar of Inshallah a Boy (Amjad Al Rasheed), a heart-ripping social realist drama from Jordan also in the Official Competition of the 3rd Red Sea Film Festival. Mariam and Fariah are prepared to fight for their inheritance, however a male lawyer has little desire to help them unless they can provide assurance of payment.

The spectres – some good and some evil – are all male characters. Deceased men seek control over living women. Meanwhile, a masturbating stranger stalks the beautiful Mariam. No wonder she wears a veil in order to protect herself from the lewd and menacing male eyes. The patriarchy – dead or alive – are bloody terrifying.

Nawal’s strong performance is the film’s biggest achievement. She is a terrified woman seeking to survive in a society that consistently oppresses her. She is no scream queen, and she won’t allow anyone to gaslight her. The cinematography of suburban Karachi also deserves credit. The largest city of Pakistan is tumultuous, oppressive and chaotic, with endless buildings and tiny apartments crammed into narrow streets, and a cacophony of sounds drowning out the possibilities of hope. A neighbour is never far away, and the large windows leave women vulnerable and exposed to the invasive male gaze. Excessive street lighting add the final touch of visual pollution to this urban dystopia. Some scenes (including the titular fire) take place on the beach, but the gloomy weather and the ferocious waves offer little hope and respite.

There is little more to salvage. In Flames does not work as a horror movie. The middle-of-the-road production design combined with an at times incomprehensible script prevent full immersion. The jump scares consist of sudden cuts with a loud thumping sound, and the ghost make-up are basically white eyes without a pupil. The horror tropes are lame and familiar. The ending may offer the two female protagonists some sort of redemption, however viewers are left cold and empty-handed.

In Flames shows in the Official Competition of the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year at Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. This isn’t the only female-made Asian horror in the Competition, which also includes Malaysian Tiger Stripes (Amanda Nell Eu).

By Victor Fraga - 05-12-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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