Human Rights Watch Film Festival: The Patience Stone

In the first of a series of reviews from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013, blog editor Emily Wight finds a moving account of one woman’s story in Afghanistan.

About a month ago Shinkai Karokhil, a member of parliament in Afghanistan, claimed: “The woman of Afghanistan today is absolutely different from the woman of Afghanistan from yesterday.”

Women in Afghanistan have faced turbulent times for decades. Photo: isafmedia

Women in Afghanistan have faced turbulent times for decades. Photo: isafmedia

It is this conviction, that women in Afghanistan are on the cusp of a new dawn, which influences Atiq Rahimi’s film The Patience Stone, based on his novel of the same name. Our protagonist is an unnamed woman – the significance of which is ambivalent: it indicates a lack of identity but also, conversely, a blank canvas on which she can start her life afresh – in an unnamed country where the sound of gunfire and the sight of tanks on residential streets are routine.

In its paraphernalia on the film, Human Rights Watch spells out that Rahmini’s country is, indeed, Afghanistan. But just as with our heroine’s name, the decision not to name the country in the film itself suggests a nation at a turning point, facing unmapped stories and endless possibilities lying ahead.

At the start of the film, the status of the protagonist, acted with a moving performance by Golshifteh Farahani, is almost entirely that of wife and mother. Her husband lies in a coma, brought on by a bullet wound to the neck, and she nurses him, mainly because, we suspect, there is not much else for her to do. Taking the advice of her aunt, she uses her rare position of power to treat her passive husband as a “patience stone”, to which she can open up her secrets and deepest desires. Like so many women, she has been silenced by men her entire life, and yet she is now given a voice.

As the narrative develops, we learn of her background, with the recollection of childhood anecdotes as well as her quiet subservience throughout her marriage.  And in the present day, she is awakening her sexual desires and discovering a changed role for her, as her previous status as someone’s wife moves further and further away from her grasp and the power balance in the relationship undergoes a significant shift.

The Patience Stone is a beautiful film, on which Farahani’s colourful salwaar kameez lights up the bleak, bombed-out streets and we are treated, at times, to wonderful sunset shots of the low-rise city nestled in the mountains. But the hills also represent a limitation for the city, as does location for the women. A woman’s path in life is either sexual, as we see in a few shots of the prostitute aunt’s brothel, or domestic, portrayed by the protagonist’s house, where most of the film is shot. The grim stories both women tell pay homage to this.

Girls in Afghanistan can now go to school. Photo: Afghanistanmatters

Girls in Afghanistan can now go to school. Photo: Afghanistanmatters

On the whole, though, Rahimi is looking forward. The curtains that act as a veil between our protagonist’s domestic life and the outside world are patterned with birds in flight. It is an obvious symbolism that could be cliché, but such symbolism is minimal, and the protagonist’s development is documented with a wonderful, understated simplicity.

The Patience Stone is a touching film, and its message is of hope for the women of Afghanistan. Before the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women were denied the right to an education, access to general hospitals and weren’t even allowed to go out in public unaccompanied by a man – to name just a few human rights infringements. Since 2001, however, girls can now go to school, there have been improvements in employment and maternal mortality, and there is even a quota for women representatives in the Afghan parliament – more than we have here in the UK.

But progress is slow, and while Rahimi’s film is moving it is rather too simplistic in its portrayal of the situation for Afghanistan’s women. The Patience Stone ends on a positive, hopeful note, which it’s easy to be cynical about when you read the disheartening statistics: 87% of women across Afghanistan surveyed by Action Aid just last year reported domestic abuse; women fleeing violent men are locked up; 4.4 million women have no access to healthcare.

The Patience Stone is a beautifully shot, well acted, incredibly moving film which deftly portrays a woman and her country’s evolving role in an increasingly uncertain world. I just fear that Rahimi’s hope is all too futile.

The Patience Stone will be showing on Monday 18 March at the Ritzy, Brixton.

To find out more about the Human Rights Watch Film Festival please click here.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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