Dukhtar (“Daughter”) is an extraordinary film in lots of usual ways: it tells a fresh story that we haven’t seen before, performed by an enchanting and talented cast; it’s a gorgeously shot road movie that travels through some of the most remote and most starkly beautiful terrain on the planet and ends up in a vivacious city, both places we also haven’t seen much of onscreen before; it’s a challenging tale told in a suspenseful, riveting way by a first-time filmmaker.
But Dukhtar — Pakistan’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film in last year’s Oscars and a festival favorite (I first saw it at last year’s London Film Festival and haven’t stopped thinking about it) — is extraordinary in some unusual ways, too. That first-time filmmaker, writer, director, and producer Afia Serena Nathaniel, is female, and she shot her film in a place — the mountains of northern Pakistan — where women are less than second-class citizens. And she’s telling a story about the lives of the women who live there that grants them their full humanity simply by insisting that they are people who deserve the agency to live their lives as they please, regardless of what the men they “belong” to would like.
Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) is unhappy in her arranged marriage to a much older man, but she isn’t moved to do anything about it until her husband promises their 10-year-old daughter, Zainab (Saleha Aref), to an enemy tribal leader as a peace offering, to be his wife. So Allah Rakhi takes Zainab and runs… to where, she doesn’t know. Where can a woman go in a nation like this, where she and her daughter have no right to make their own decisions? Inspired by a true story, this is sometimes almost a painfully tender film: Allah Rakhi has no way of making her daughter understand why they are running, not when they are running precisely to protect her childhood and her innocence. Zainab is still playing with dolls and dreaming about a wedding to a prince, after all, and the sidelong hints we get of the pain, physical and emotional, that Allah Rakhi has suffered in her married life have absolutely no resonance for the little girl. She is still blissfully ignorant of what being a woman in this place means. But there are bright spots of color and hope in this landscape, so desolate both in geographically and culturally, such as in former soldier Sohail (Mohib Mirza), who reluctantly comes to their aid on the road, even as they are being chased by her husband’s men as well as those of her daughter’s would-be husband. Via Sohail we learn something of how men are oppressed and injured, inside and out, by a society that is ruled by bullies with guns who are all about protecting their dubious “honor” over everything else.
Dukhtar isn’t a preachy film, though it is inevitably an enraging one to Western eyes. It pretends to be nothing more than a peek into the hopes and fears of women in a place where they are not encouraged or expected to speak of either. For giving voice to these silent women, Dukhtar is important, and imperative, and moving. But it’s also simply a very gripping escape film. It’s not one I will soon forget on any count.