By: Joshua Minsoo Kim
Director: Aminatou Echard
Runtime: 84 mins | Genre: Documentary
Chingiz Aytmatov’s Jamila is a novel that finds the titular character falling in love with a man named Daniyar as her husband Sadyk is away at war. In reading Sadyk's letters, we come to understand that he views his wife as lesser than her, as a piece of property that he owns. For Jamila, she understands that loving someone other than her husband would be deemed immoral by the village, so she initially asks to avoid working on the same threshing floor as Daniyar. But by the end of the story, Jamila commits to her love for Daniyar and runs away with him. Director Aminatou Echard utilizes this famous book as a starting point for interviews with numerous women living in Kyrgyzstan. In allowing such honest discussion to take place, Echard presents an honest depiction of what it's like to be a woman living in Kyrgyzstan.
Shooting with a Super 8 camera, Echard is able to capture the participants of her documentary in a relatively unobtrusive manner. Her images find these women in quotidian settings; she captures the women simply standing, or closely observes them as they work. Interestingly, the words we hear from these women were recorded separately from the images onscreen. The decision to have this decoupling forces viewers to do the coupling themselves, having them play an active role in associating sound with image, opinions with the actual women who hold them. The film grain works to make each shot even more personal, but it more importantly allows the vivid colors that fill each frame to stand out even more, complimenting every vibrant and inspiring word that's spoken.
At times, hearing these women speak brings an incredible amount of joy. One states that she divorced her husband as the marriage was a result of parental pressure. Referring to how the story of Jamila took place during World War II, she proudly declares that she is "the Jamila in the time of democracy!" Later, we see a woman who would find it too challenging to do what Jamila did because she fears Allah. And yet, she recognizes that it's not Jamila's fault that she left her husband, that "she had no other choice" and is "not a bad person." More encouraging, we see her attending a women's meeting in her neighborhood. There, a religious man is asked why he and other men would force girls to marry before they're 17. In a quiet moment of victory, the man is unable to give an answer.
An interesting irony that Echard understands is how Jamila is a relatively progressive novel that has remained a part of the school curriculum for decades, yet is still far from the conservative social reality of Kyrgyzstan. As such, it makes sense that she focuses a portion of the film on life in school. We hear a female teacher detail the value of education for girls. She bluntly states that while many of these girls will never find work and be asked to stay home—even those who attend nursing school—it's still better for them to stay in school so they "won't be limited by tradition and religion." While there may not be much hope for her generation to find better work, she knows that it's important to do everything possible for the generation below her to receive "full support." In a moment that is both touching and heartbreaking, she discloses to the director that she hasn't spoken about such things in a long time—"when someone understands you, when you talk equal to equal, it's such a bliss."
Appropriately, the film concludes with two girls speaking about a camp they attended. During the camp, people discussed women's rights and gender equality. The boys who attended didn't want such things but the girls didn't let this discourage them. One girl states that she just wants to "live a happy life, life that in which patriarchy will not touch me." Prior to this scene, we see a wall painted with a phrase: "For a woman, the most dangerous place is home." It's a painful truth that describes the restricted lives of women living in Kyrgyzstan, but Echard makes sure that this isn't the final message we hear. Instead, the girl firmly asserts a simple and clear demand: "We want freedom."