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Nelofer Pazira as Mejgan with Ali Hazara as Ali in Act of Dishonour

Act of Dishonour

  • Directed and written by Nelofer Pazira
  • Starring Nelofer Pazira, Marina Goldahari
  • Classification: PG

The subject of honour killings hit Canadian headlines and op-ed pages again recently with the sentencing last month of a Mississauga man for the murder of his teenage daughter. Act of Dishonour, the feature drama directing debut of Nelofer Pazira, confronts this issue in a more distant context - a remote village in northern Afghanistan starting to rebuild after decades of conflict - yet its story of a happy betrothal that takes a tragic turn is just as contemporary.

It also reflects some of Pazira's filmmaking experiences. To refresh your memory, Pazira - who grew up in Kabul and eventually moved to Canada - starred in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's award-winning 2001 drama Kandahar, which was based on Pazira's real-life 1996 journey to find a lost childhood friend. Pazira then co-directed the 2003 Gemini-winning documentary Return to Kandahar, which also explored that story.

Act of Dishonour is the next step in what is starting to feel like a postmodern cinema conceit. It is partly inspired by stories about Afghan women who were beaten or killed by family members because of participating in a film; one such incident involving a teenage girl happened during the making of Kandahar. In her new film, Pazira plays Majgan, an Afghanistan-born translator who is part of a small Canadian film crew making a dramatic film in the village. Majgan is going through an identity crisis about her Afghan roots and meets a young village girl, Mena (Marina Golbahari, star of Golden Globe-winning Osama), with whom she develops a tentative connection.

Majgan is under pressure from the film's director and convinces Mena - who never leaves the family home - into playing a small role. She entices the girl by promising to give her one of the burkas being used in the film; Mena is betrothed to Rahmat, a gentle young man who drives the local bus, and has told Majgan she longs for a burka to wear at her wedding.

But the plan does not work out. The anguish of Mena's father at having to kill his daughter for her act of dishonour is devastating to watch, although the final outcome, which involves Rahmat, suggests village culture may be slowly changing.

While it's true film crews working in isolated communities sometimes unwittingly cause problems, the fact that Majgan doesn't seem to comprehend the consequences of her somewhat desperate handling of Mena feels unsatisfying. The business with the burka feels rushed and just odd. As well, the film's secondary story - about refugee families returning to find their former homes overtaken - is much more interesting and almost unfolds like a separate film.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Paul Sarossy, Act of Dishonour has elements of what could have been a fascinating insight into a culture on the cusp of change, in a part of the world we know little about. If only that Canadian film crew didn't get in the way.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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