Three Women of Fribourg: Suffering and Struggle By Mofidul Hoque

in 20th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Mofidul Hoque

The suffering, torment and struggle of three women of the contemporary world, belonging to three different cultures, have their images projected on the screen of the 19th Fribourg International Film Festival, thereby making the festival more memorable. Three films made in three different genres, depicting the plight of women, are very different, but also bear certain commonalities. Probing deeper the picture become sharp and clear. It also relates to the theme of the festival “Filming the Invisible”, the invisibility that lies deep inside us, as well as the aspects of life made invisible by the socio-cultural or political authority.

The conflict and suffering of these three protagonists; Jeong-hae of This Charming Girl (Korea), Viviana of To Take A Wife (Ve Lakachta Lecha Isha, France-Israel), Zeinab of The Sleeping Child (L’enfant endormi, Belgium-Morocco), living respectively in a South Korean city, the Israeli town of Haifa, and in the remote village of southern Morocco. All have a tormented soul but, in spite of enduring great hardship, at the end one can feel that every one of them is not ready to compromise with their miserable existence and each of them resists in their own way. That makes the three women memorable, proving that they are women of substance.

“This Charming Girl”

This Charming Girl is the story of a young girl, Jeong-hae. Being a victim of rape at an early age, she has turned more inwardly. The death of her mother, her great companion of life, hardened her loneliness. While the other relatives are too busy to care for her, she has little interaction with society. The sensual girl could not find solace in anybody around her. Her marriage collapsed on the honeymoon night as she walked out of the hotel because of a crude and insensitive joke cracked by the husband about her first sexual encounter, the traumatic painful experience of her life. Her colleagues are run of the mill girls who don’t share the joys and sorrows of life. The young girl, keeping her deep sensibilities alive, cannot cope with the banalities of everyday existence, and turns into an outsider, drifting towards further loneliness and at the same time yearning for love and understanding.

The young director, Lee Yoon-ki, in his debut feature film, has nicely handled the sensualism of the girl. The slow rhythm of the film, the use of sound and silence, the detail of household chores done by the girl, all contributed to audience involvement with her eventless daily existence. Even the sharp conflicts were toned down, like the flashes of the rape scene or the death of her mother. The director excelled in visualising the intimate pensive atmosphere inside the apartment, but was surprisingly not so comfortable when the scene transferred to the outer realm; the branch post-office where the girl works, her interaction with colleagues, or even with her potential lover. The lead actress Kim Li-soo gives a very sensual and intimate performance, successfully portraying a tormented soul. At the end we stand at the crossroads, not knowing whether this sensuous girl will find someone who will understand her, with whom she can share the feelings and will provide her comfort in distress in the same way she extended to the drunken young man she met at the restaurant. We may remain in confusion regarding the future course in her life but we feel confident that the seemingly fragile and melancholy girl Jeong-hae carries within herself a great strength of non-conformity which will never allow her to embrace a banal and shallow existence. This inner strength has made her, in all senses, a charming girl.

“To Take A Wife”

To Take a Wife by the young Israeli director duo, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz has excelled in its portrayal of the tormented soul of a sensitive and capable woman who has to lead a life restricted within the four walls of a crammed apartment. Raising three children and looking after the mother-in-law, under the close observation of her orthodox husband, she has no room for herself. It is the denial of a woman’s rights to have an existence of her own, not by coercion or violence, but by the dictum of social customs, religious norms and straight-jacket thinking. Superbly acted by Ronit Elkabetz, the life and fate of the young Jewish woman Viviana, caught in the net of traditional societal and religious restrictions, and also by her own commitment to the family, has gradually increased her torment and closed alternate options. The suffering of sensitive women in an arranged marriage kept together by different pressures of tradition, religion and dogma, where the partner is not on an equal level, is a phenomenon very common in various parts of the world. The women in most cases suffer silently. The film is a powerful portrayal of such suffering and right from the beginning one gets the feel of it when members of the family put pressure on the woman to keep the bondage of marriage unbroken. The suffering of the soul and the cry of pain is the theme of the movie that will touch the heart of everyone everywhere.

Directors Ronit and Shlomi handled the potential difficulties of a family drama in a mature way. Their focus was on the subtlety of human relationships and they created many memorable moments like the one at the cemetery where sudden raindrops made the Rabbi and the husband impatient and eager to to cut their prayer short. The same rain proved to be a welcome to Viviana when she met her old lover Albert. Their meeting at a desolate cafe, with iron-railings behind them, looked more like a prison where both of them find themselves confined. Viviana is an example of a failed marriage the clutch of which became too strong because of the social and religious pressure and the lone struggle proved to be too heavy a burden for her.

“The Sleeping Child”

The Sleeping Child by the Moroccan woman director Yasmine Kassari has a very strong story-line. Set in the remote mountainous rural village of Southern Morocco, with majestic beauty and little opportunity for the men of the village to earn a livelihood. In a group the male members of the community illegally emigrate to Spain to explore the opportunity that lures them. What happens to the rural women left on their own is the theme of the film. Young Zeinab’s husband left the village only one day after their marriage. Her mother, following the rural custom, declared Zeinab pregnant and gave her a talisman to put the children in sleep. The child can only be awakened by the husband’s permission. This ritual has created confusion in the understanding of the film, especially for an audience not exposed to the existence and practice of rituals in a contemporary society. When society adopts and practices ritual there always remain certain practical reasons behind it. This particular ritual is one window kept open for the women to face various odds of life in the long absence of their husbands. Zeinab’s child was put to sleep in her belly and she continued with her everyday struggle for existence. The loneliness of a village almost totally devoid of its able-bodied male members has been elegantly depicted by the director. Twenty months later, Zeinab’s husband, realising that there was no possibility of his return to the village, sends Zeinab a letter permitting her to awake the baby. In other words, she can now have the baby and remain in the family. Zeinab, a girl waging a lonely and burdensome struggle, decides to be herself and become a master of her own destiny, a character moulded by the fire of life.

The Fribourg International Film Festival has brought together these three magnificent women and from three different angles they uphold the same commitment of a journey towards a meaningful human existence.