I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Just today announced as Britain’s official submission for Best Foreign Language film for the upcoming Oscars, My Pure Land — it’s in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan — is a marvel all around. Shot guerilla-style in a rural region outside Lahore (and set in the province of Sindh), where heavily armed civilians make up their own private militias and outsiders are not generally welcomed except as potential kidnap victims to be ransomed — so, you know, potentially problematic for visiting filmmakers — this is a retelling of a true story about a woman who dared to challenge the warlord-esque rule of those militias… and the overarching misogyny of her culture. Nazo Dharejo, now legendary as “the toughest woman in Sindh,” was 18 in the early 1990s when her uncle launched a violent challenge to the ownership of her family’s farm; land disputes are apparently ubiquitous in Pakistan, and certainly mere women could not be tolerated to occupy valuable land that should “rightfully” belong to a man.
With his feature debut, British-Pakistani director Sarmad Masud depicts with a stark, spare, matter-of-fact brutality that is more psychological than visceral how Nazo (Suhaee Abro) — with the help of her mother, Waderi (Razia Malik), and younger sister, Saeda (Eman Malik) — holds off her well-armed uncle, Mehrban (Ahsen Murad), and his “soldiers,” even as they’re low on bullets and much lower on respect from their opponents. (But women always know how to take advantage of men underestimating them, as Nazo does.) Masud uses the hazy, dusty Pakistani flatlands to lend the armed standoff the air of a modern western — the cows are remarkably unperturbed by the gunfire all around them — and the utter corruption of the local “law enforcement” puts this smack in the “wild West” arena. Abro, as a performer, is primarily a dancer, and she brings a lean, mean grace to the gunslinging Nazo, which becomes even more extraordinary compared to the meek girl she was only a few years earlier: flashbacks flesh out the background of the dispute. Much more movingly, the leadup to the standoff beautifully dramatizes how her “Baba” (father) (Syed Tanveer Hussain) refused to mourn the fact that he was given daughters rather than sons, and taught them to be strong in body and in character and to honor the value of their land, which is, in his words, “worth a lot more than money.” (It is his absence, which the flashbacks also explain, that left the women vulnerable to his brother’s challenge.)
Tense, gripping, rife with tragedy but ultimately cheerworthy, My Pure Land offers a gorgeous balance of action and drama in a setting that it both familiar and foreign, with a heroine I won’t soon forget. And its feminism is an all-inclusive one that actively invites men to be allies. Yes, all men. Because you’ll only get left behind if you don’t join us.