The Dilemmas of the Women

in 55th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Adéla Mrázová

This year, the programme directors of the main competition of the Karlovy Vary IFF selected twelve films from different countries around the world, reflecting the focus of the festival on originality and innovation in filmmaking. While the festival’s Crystal Globe award this year went to Strahinja (As Far as I Can Walk, 2021), a drama about African migrants, the three-member FIPRESCI jury was most impressed by Iraqi-born director Shawkat Amin Korki’s drama The Exam, set in Iraqi Kurdistan – an unusual setting for European film audiences, not corresponding at all to the stereotypical images of a country torn apart by radical Islamism and military conflicts. In the film, Korki boldly explores the theme of women’s rights, a topic that is gaining momentum in contemporary Middle Eastern cinema thanks to the emergence of established female film directors and the interest of European producers. Although the film does not confront the issue with manifestations of an overly orthodox or radical Islam – given its location, the dilemmas of the women presented here nevertheless provide the basis for a gripping drama that keeps the viewer on tenterhooks throughout.

While this is the first time that a film from the autonomous region of Iraq has been screened in the main competition of the Karlovy Vary Festival, The Exam is not a locally specific work included for its exclusivity or its support of a re-emerging cinema; it is a film of cosmopolitan cut, made in a way that any viewer around the world can easily identify with.

Imagine having a cheat sheet under your desk while facing the most important test of your life, that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach that keeps you on the edge the whole time and does not allow you to take a full breath. It is not for prestige or a high score, but something much more important and irreversible. For Kurdish women, university entrance exams are often the only way to take their lives into their own hands.

The Exam also refers to a practice that we sometimes hear about in the media, in the context of countries in the Arab or post-Soviet region. A number of students try to cheat at university exams by having a small Bluetooth earpiece implanted in their ear, while the correct answers are broadcast from across town. The main character, Rojin, is driven into cheating by a motivation that is different from most other cheaters passively ticking off the answers resonating in their eardrums. The results of the exam will determine whether she will be free in life or if someone else will decide her future. If she fails the several rounds of university entrance exams, she must undergo an arranged marriage. At the forefront of the plot, however, is her older sister Shilan, who has already decided her fate. She is struggling in her marriage with her despotic husband, and she exerts all her strength towards the goal of providing her sister with a more emancipated way of life – at any cost. The deception they commit costs them increasingly more than they initially admit, and more they can bear. 

With a central plot that clearly establishes the characters’ starting points and goals, and that channels the frenetic energy of heist films, it is easy to identify with the social challenges concerning the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan. A distant world full of rules unthinkable from a Western point of view suddenly comes closer to us, because the rules of honest behavior apply here too; but the filmmaker leads us to question where the boundaries of personal morals, profit and freedom lie amongst an engagingly presented system of deception. Focusing on the improvisational strategies of the underground movement and its “adversaries” with their somewhat murkier motivations allows the various social groups to be connected and provides a rich variety of characters, guaranteeing a stimulating ground for ironic social commentary and a number of hilarious situations. The interweaving of personal fates with the machinery of corruption also allows the story to maintain a tight structure and ensures a relentless pace that demands constant vigilance. While the consequences of the heroines’ actions, knowingly taken, lead to a fierce finale, there remains room for ambiguity in justifying their decision to challenge the norm. Even if they have no choice, they can still take advantage of opportunities with which society provides them and transgress even those norms that have a positive value. As much as the sisters’ efforts represent a desperate struggle to maintain their rights to make decisions about their own lives, they also leave bitter feelings and scars on their relationship. It is in this respect that the film approaches the issue of women’s rights more comprehensively, provocatively, and loosely than many other works that unquestioningly define the desire for personal emancipation through the characters of suffering women cutting the chains of a ruthless patriarchy.  

Adéla Mrázová
Edited by Birgit Beumers