13 October 2013

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '13: HONOR DIARIES (MICAH SMITH, CANADA-UK-USA

Screens at CIFF: 10/13 & 10/15 & 10/21
World premiere: 13 October, 2013, Chicago International Film Festival

There is more than one kind of Muslim-majority country, and more than one form of Islam that could be practiced by the Muslims of a country whether they dominate its cultural life or not, so nothing applies to every situation. Even so, I am comfortable with making the blanket statement that being a woman in a Muslim-majority country has just about the highest chance of anything in the world of being completely dreadful that I can think of. At their most intensely reactionary, strict Islamic governments have perfected a system of denying women their personhood that's quite unlike anything else in the modern world, and it is a moral crime, pure and simple.

That is what I believe, and I suspect it is a version of what most of the people reading this believe, and it is certainly what the makers of the essay film Honor Diaries believe, so in theory we should all be happily sitting on the same page; but Honor Diaries is the kind of activist documentary made in such a way that you end up feeling kind of for agreeing with it, even if the thing being agreed to is as close to an objective truth as "the systematic disregard for women's safety encoded into the laws of many Islamic governments is a crime against humanity". The film is only 68 minutes long, but by the second time that the soundtrack begins swelling with the Strings of Moral Approbation, it's wildly clear that those are going to be a long 68 minutes, full of much endless haranguing and self-congratulations for being the right kind of people believing the right kind of things.

The notion behind it goes a bit like this: leaders of various organisations dedicated to securing the rights of Islamic women abused and threatened in ways safeguarded by the laws and cultural norms stacked against them, thought it would be a useful thing to have a general meeting of the minds between nine leading activists in the global fight for Muslim women's rights. A documentary crew, under the direction of Micah Smith, was on hand to record the conversations had at this colloquium, and I get that pluralism and big tent and all, but I do want to point out that Micah is a boy's name, and really?

The conversation was ordered, at least in the film, around the issue of "honor violence", hence the title: acts in which a male relative is not only permitted but actively encouraged to preserve family honor against the perceived or actual sexual indiscretions of a women (and keep in mind that "revealing too much of your hairline" is a sexual indiscretion in some countries). This preservation can come in all sorts of zesty ways: disfigurement by acid, genital mutilation, imprisonment, heavy beatings, or straight-up murder. Such crimes have increased over time, and recently have begun cropping up more and more frequently in what we don't traditionally think of as "Muslim" countries, including the UK and U.S.

This much, at least, is true: as a compendium of atrocities, Honor Diaries is a terrific piece of agitprop, and watching the nine women from various backgrounds in the West and Middle East each bring their own perspective on the reasons behind this obsession with honor and the viciousness with which it is defended, offers a more multifaceted, comprehensive view of what everyday life is like for women in repressive societies than the mere knowledge that "these women sure do have it rough" can possibly stand in for. As a white American atheist male, I'm hardly in a position to do more with the participants' arguments than absorb them, but it is anyway a good film for exposing you to realities you'd happily not think about, and for making you good and mad, which is exactly what the creators are gunning for.

But sophisticated and nuanced, it sure fucking ain't; even if the filmmakers were doing absolutely everything else right, the music would be one of the most offensively sensationalising things that I can imagine happening to this material. Worse yet, that's not the only thing that's wrong: the general layout of the arguments as they are presented through editing, and especially the way that particularly heinous stories are punched up and lingered on, is the lumpiest sort of propagandising, preying on the viewer's gut reaction and not anything even vaguely intellectual. Obviously, Honor Diaries is looking to rile people up in the time-honored fashion of agitprop docs since the form was created, but making a bunch of righteously angry people is hardly the solution to the problem the film has identified, particularly since the film outwardly claims to be about the exact opposite: about discussing problems in an open forum and forming solutions. Which, I'm sorry, menacing orchestrations might be good for a lot of things, but they're there to shut down discussion, not foment it.

We have no way of knowing what happened in all the moments not depicted onscreen, but "discussing problems and forming solutions" isn't really all that much on display in the interactions between the nine participants as presented in the film. The structure of each wave of the discussion appears to go something like this: somebody identifies an issue. Somebody else tells a horrifying anecdote illustrating it. A third person starts to reiterate this and has to pull back before she starts crying. A fourth person, or maybe it's the first person again, sagely observes that it's great that they all have this chance to get these things out in the open. And of course it is, and as long as things remain they way they are, we need more of these stories being told, loudly, in public. But this is a literal chorus preaching to itself, and while I think you'd have to be a real asshole to disagree with the arguments that Honor Diaries furthers, I genuinely cannot imagine a more pandering, airless, self-congratulatory way of presenting those arguments than this.

5/10

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