SGIFF 2021 Review: ‘Rehana Maryam Noor’4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
A professor’s career and relationships unravel as she pits herself against institutional sexism at a medical college.
Director: Abdullah Mohammad Saad
Cast: Azmeri Haque Badhon, Afia Jahin Jaima, Kazi Sami Hassan, Afia Tabassum Borno
Country: Bangladesh, Singapore, Qatar
Runtime: 107 minutes
Bangladesh made an unequivocal statement on the international stage earlier this year when Rehana Maryam Noor premiered at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard — a first for the country’s filmmakers.
The defiant drama carves an exceptionally hostile atmosphere out of a humdrum college campus, with a brilliant leading performance clinging on, tooth and nail, to any and all surviving morality amidst the suffocating madness. The dense moral complexities presented do no favours either, with the essential question of how women could ever find justice within inherently unjust systems begging to be answered.
Rehana details the investigations of a medical professor (Azmeria Haque Badhon) as she fights to expose a colleague’s (Kazi Sami Hasan) sexual abuse of one of their student, Annie (Afia Tabassum Borno). In between this and her everyday work, her attention is stolen away by her idling brother (Yasir Al Haq) and her six-year-old daughter (Afia Jahin Jaima), who is unknowingly experiencing her first brush with institutional sexism.
Rehana is a frustrating character to follow — and this seems to be by the film’s design. Although there is a sense that this isn’t necessarily her first experience with flagrant abuses of power, Rehana, dead-set on righting wrongs, still reacts to every obstacle with unbridled anger and exasperation. It becomes an obsession.
These are reactions that do not go unnoticed, perhaps echoing the sentiments of the audience, with constant accusations of naivety and self-righteousness. This, even from the victim herself, who wants nothing more than to graduate unbothered. And they do make convincing cases against Rehana while rendering critiques against allyship. The story soon grows into a complex moral dilemma, best summed up by Rehana’s brother, all too familiar with his sister’s vindictive streak: “Are you doing this for your daughter or for yourself?”
Rehana wages her war alone against fundamental inequalities that have long taken root as realities — while being sandwiched between the older generation’s attempts to maintain the uneasy peace and the younger generation’s willingness to accept the perpetuation of the vicious cycle. The characters around her have long accepted and even taken advantage of these social orderings in their own ways. Audiences may even catch themselves rooting against Rehana, especially by the story’s showstopping conclusion.
How the deck is stacked against women is expressed through the film’s discordant setting. It’s so palpable, so depressingly unsettling, that the only exit from the torture seemingly lies in accepting all the terms on the table — foul or otherwise.
The campus halls glow with an otherworldly azure with no clear indication of day or night nor any view of the outside world. Noise is omnipresent, whether from the streets nearby or from the incessant ticking of the clock. Scenes snap between locales, folding time into one seemingly unending day. It’s a film that understands that one’s personal space is the immediate space behind us, and weaponises the knowledge with merciless efficiency.
You will fear for Rehana’s life as she belligerently forces open closed doors — and this is despite the gallant, near-unshakable courage and stubbornness Azmeria brings to her character. Perhaps the cruellest trick the film pulls is with how it presents its abuser. There are only pockets of menace in Yasir’s performance with calm serenity detailing the rest. The terrifying subtlety comes with how the character hardly gives off the impression that he is putting on a facade.
Rehana is a horror film — not supernatural or even existential in nature but of pure claustrophobia. The predicaments Rehana comes to blows with isn’t unfamiliar either, but very rarely are they presented with so much chilling efficacy.
Rehana Maryam Noor made its Southeast Asian premiere at this year’s Singapore International Film Festival.