"Shahida": The City of Women By Pablo Utin

in 58th Berlinale

by Pablo Utin

Manal, a beautiful young Muslim woman was on her way to a Jewish kindergarten carrying an explosives belt with the purpose of committing one of the most horrifying terrorist attacks one could imagine. She was supposed to explode herself and kill little infants. Luckily, she didn’t make it through the Israeli checkpoint. Manal has four children. One of them, an infant himself, is living with her in jail. He was born there, as she was pregnant with him when she went on her suicide mission. After she got caught, she was sent to the Sharon jail, where the other inmates are all Arab women. Most of them are there because they tried to commit a suicide bombing attack, or aided to commit one.

Israeli Natalie Assouline, a first time director, went to Sharon with a camera and filmed the stories of Manal, Amal, Kahira, Ayat, Waffa and other young Palestinian women, religious fanatics that believe that the Jihad (Holy War), suicide bombing and terrorist attacks are their natural born right.

The first images of the film show us frontal extreme close ups of the eyes of the women prisoners. In this way, Assouline conveys to us with her camera that we are watching a film that looks straight in the eyes of the protagonists. It tries hard not to judge them, but to have a dialogue with them, to get close to them. This effort, however, is revealed during the film as almost impossible to succeed in. A lot is left unsaid, or only hinted at.

In one scene, Kahira, one of the women prisoners, shows an unfavorable article about herself, published in an Israeli newspaper. The article is illustrated with a very unflattering photo of her: it fits the image of a terrorist, as one might imagine it, and does not show her beauty, as she points out.

In contrast to the Israeli media’s portrait of these women, in Shahida, Assouline tries to show them as they are — or at least as they present themselves to a Jewish camera. They are beautiful, smart, educated, very fluent young women. We identify with these women and like them, and yet, we are always reminded that these women are extremists, religious fanatics that believe in eternal Jihad and mass killing. Dramatic black captions tell us what these women did, why they are in jail.

From the beginning, Assouline chooses to focus on the daily life of the inmates. One of them is pregnant and Assouline goes with her to the Ultrasound. They talk about motherhood, she shows the director baby clothes that she already bought for her future child. Other women gather to study, and later in the film they prepare for a photo shoot as if they were fashion models.

In this sense, Shahida is part of a new trend in Israeli cinema which I have called Cinema of Disengagement. During the years of the Disengagement from Gaza and the building of the West Bank wall, some very prominent Israeli films started disengaging from politics. There is an urge in many Israeli citizens to disengage from the events surrounding them, stemming from their reluctance or inability to deal with the ongoing political tensions in the area. The Cinema of Disengagement expresses this need in a very special way: The films approach politically charged issues without directly discussing politics, but instead, concentrating on human relationships and individual stories. The most prominent examples of this kind of Cinema are the feature films The Band’s Visit (Bikur Hatizmoret) and Beaufort. Shahida is their documentary counterpart. Leaving politics outside the frame, and focusing on the daily life of these special women, the images get politically charged all the same, because of the tension between what is said and what remains unsaid, or deliberately not approached.

The fascinating thing about Shahida is that although there is some very clear political content in the film, the focus is not on the political tension between the Israeli Director and her Palestinian interviewees, but the tension between a definition of womanhood and motherhood. Assouline is more interested in their personal reasons for what they did than in the ideological ones. How can a mother abandon her kids and husband and go to kill others by committing suicide? How can a woman that studied at the university, has a steady job and her entire future ahead of her, leave everything behind? How can a pregnant woman put an explosive belt around her belly, right on top of her unborn son?

At the beginning of the film Assouline shows us that the interviewees answer her questions with typical terrorist propaganda clichés. What else lies behind those answers?

A glimpse of that is given by some scenes where the women forget they have microphones on them and talk to each other as if we couldn’t listen to what they say. They ask one another how they should answer the question “Why did you do it?”: “Should I tell her I wanted to die because I was fed up?” “No. Shame on you” answers her inmate.

A close viewing of the film reveals to us the nuances of the interviewees’ reactions when approached with difficult questions. They don’t answer, but their faces are filled with conflict and shame — not for what they did, but for the reasons why they did it. That is what they are hiding, the real, personal reasons that made them leave their work place, their family, their children and their village, and go to commit or assist a terrorist attack.

The language gap between the interviewer and interviewees is not really a gap. The Israeli director asks the questions in Hebrew, and the interviewees answer them in Arabic. However, it is obvious that the interviewees understand and talk Hebrew. They know the two languages very well. In a beautiful moment, that goes unnoticed for a foreign audience, one of the women, when asked a difficult question she is not able to answer smoothly, suddenly uses the Hebrew word “regah”, which means “wait a second”. The sudden use of the Hebrew language exposes the complex cultural relation between the director and her subjects, connected of course to the Israeli dominance over the Palestinian people. The only prisoner who answers the questions in Hebrew is the outsider, Ranya. She tells us that it was not ideology that lead these women to commit the terrorist attacks, but family oppression. Suddenly the woman that said she was “fed up” at the beginning of the film comes back to mind. Now we can better understand that the “I was fed up”, wasn’t about the Israeli oppression (why would she be afraid to refer to such an obvious factor?) but about the oppression by her own family and village.

There is another time we hear Hebrew used by an inmate. This time we don’t see the person, but hear the digitally distorted voice of an unidentified woman who prefers to hide her identity. The woman confesses she did what she did because of social and family pressure, and not for political or ideological reasons. The confession is not made in her native language, but in Hebrew. As if through the confession she is distancing herself from her Arab origins.

The color palette of the film is a very mild one. Pastel colors, light blue, pink, white. These are the colors of Sharon prison, but they suit the serene voice of the interviewees. In addition to the peaceful dialogue between the director and her subjects, Shahida delivers a soundtrack that focuses on sounds of locks being locked, doors being open and closed, women praying and dramatic music. These sounds strengthen the sensation of angst that being in jail generates.

Nonetheless, the experience of being in jail is rendered complex in Shahida. One interesting moment in the film is that of women discussing religious issues. When a man commits suicide and kills the enemy he goes to heaven as a hero, where 72 virgins wait for him. But what happens to the women? The prisoners tell us that the 72 virgins, all women, also wait for them. But what would a suicide terrorist woman do in heaven with 72 virgin women?

In a way, we could perversely say that they would do the same thing these women are doing with each other in jail. They live together, study together, pray together and forge a beautiful friendship together. One of the main things Shahida suggests is that, paradoxically, these women might have found their true liberty in jail. They do suffer and feel frustration, but in another sense, there are moments in which the Sharon prison becomes a kind of perverse version of heaven — a place where these women are free in other, more mysterious ways. This complexity, that shuffles the dichotomies of good and bad, human and inhuman and ordinary and horrifying, is what gives Shahida its central strength and beauty.