Stories of Women: Diaries of Conflict By Ranjita Biswas

in 33rd Toronto International Film Festival

by Ranjita Biswas

At the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, two films were presented that were based on real-life stories on women protagonists, that have widely varied backgrounds but somehow, although they take place in different times and different locales, they have something in common: The exploitation of women in conflict situations, and the women’s ability to cope and find a way out.

Max Färberböck’s A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma — Eine Frau in Berlin) is based on the actual diaries of an anonymous German woman, written as the Red Army entered Berlin in the summer of 1945. (The book was published in 1954.) The author’s stories of German women struggling to survive in their crumbling homeland shocked readers — particularly the revelation that “liberating” or “invading” forces (depending on which side of the fence one sat on) used these women as the spoils of war.

In the film, a journalist (Nina Hoss) is caught in this upheaval and it is her diary that describes the terrible ordeal the women went through to survive. Realizing the futility of resisting physical assault day in day out, she seeks the protection of a Russian commander, Andrej (Yevgeni Sidikhin). But this liaison of convenience unexpectedly turns into an emotional attachment as she finds this refined and sensitive enemy soldier to be someone she could fall in love with, despite the circumstances.

In weaving a story of love, instinct for survival under brutal circumstances, and even humanizing the soldiers, director Färberböck has crafted a creditable tale — though admittedly, it is not groundbreaking in the sense that stories of love during wartime are nothing new.

If set against this German-Polish co-production, Cyrus Nowrasteh’s The Stoning of Soraya M — set in Iran — would seem unrelated, but it, too, is a story of women caught in conflict. In this case, the conflict is one of religious ideology. Nowrasteh’s film is based on the 1994 book of the same title by French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, examining the custom, in certain Muslim countries, of stoning women to death for allegations of adultery.

Sahebjam based the book on the experience of meeting a woman, Zahra, from a remote Iranian village who told him about the stoning of her niece Soraya — a mother of two — after her husband falsely accused her of adultery. The international best-seller also served to bring to the world’s attention the horrendous practice of death by stoning, levied by a patriarchal society that denies women their basic human rights.

The story does not seem terribly far-fetched; even very recently, there have been reports of the same crime occurring in areas bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The story of Soraya, as she helplessly tries to defend herself with Zahra’s help, assaults the senses with the brutality of her fellow human beings. The male members of her village treat the stoning almost like an occasion for celebrate — like a local fair — and there is even a circus party that arrives accidentally to add color. But is it a circus, after all? At times, for the urban sensibility weaned on liberal ideas, the film could look “unrealistic” — too black and white. But its ‘cinema verité’presentation is appropriate to the story that inspired the film; one cannot escape the hard reality of a world beyond.

What binds the two films is the non-fictional nature of the stories. As with the ‘anonymous’ woman of Germany, the tale Zahra relates to the journalist reveals a story of brutality against women in times of strife. And, like the German woman, Zahra triumphs, in a way, by bringing an untold story to the outside world.

When real stories of our times strike us — like the stone thrown at Soraya — the line between celluloid storytelling and reality often blurs, as is the case here.