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The Oscar-winning documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness was directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and released in 2015. The movie tells a heart-rending story of a Pakistani girl who nearly fell a victim of the so-called honor killing – the concept that does not exist in the West but is still very strong in the Middle East. The problem is aggravated by the fact that the majority of the population believes that honor killings are justified by the intention of the act. People are reconciled with the fact that justice is typically upheld outside the courtroom and do not attempt to change the situation.
Despite the potential significance of nonfiction movies, their role in fostering transformations of the society has not been properly studied yet being largely neglected by researchers (Marquis 1). Thus, the paper at hand will use the example of A Girl in the River to prove that documentaries can act as powerful tools, facilitating change even in the communities where the influence of centuries-old traditions is still enormous.
The major character of the movie is a 19-year-old Pakistani girl, Saba Qaiser, whose story began when she fell in love with a man, of whom her family disapproved, and ran off to marry him. As soon as the wedding ceremony took place, the girl’s father and uncle convinced her to get into their car. The girl believed them and paid a high price for this. Saba’s relatives took her to the riverbank to murder for spotting the family’s honor. After being severely beaten, she was shot from a pistol, packed into a sack and thrown into the river. The murderers drove away, be sure that the family honor was restored. It seems incredible but Saba survived. The bullet scratched her face but did not kill her; the girl only fainted. Being recovered by the water, Saba managed to get out of the sack and reach the riverbank. When she got to a gas station, people called an ambulance to save her (“A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”).
The film tells the whole story, showing Saba in the hospital when she is having her cheek stitched back together and following her up to the moment when she is already fully recovered and feels relatively safe. The only thing that she knows for sure after all the events are that she will never be able to forgive her relatives for what they did to her although their religion approves of their actions (“A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”). What is even worse, prosecuting a woman for causing disrespect to her family is a common practice in Pakistan, which is accountable for thousands of murders annually. Thus, Saba’s story is a perfect illustration of how the laws of the country allow its citizen to get away with such atrocious crimes if the protection of their honor can be cited as an excuse.
The movie is breathtaking not only because of the story itself but also due to the director’s mastery to use a well-structured narrative and aesthetic means to highlight its most vivid moments.
The reality constructed by the movie is two-fold as it unites the real with the mystical. The director jumps right into the topic by presenting statistics of honor killings on the screen (with the rest of the text fading away) to communicate the importance of the shocking numbers to the viewer. The following night shots of Gurjanwala create mystery, giving you the feeling of loneliness as if you were a silent observer of the tragedy, the outcome of which you cannot change. To aggravate this aesthetic effect, the title is displayed over pitch dark water with only a slim reflection of light. The introduction seems to portray the experience Saba had when she was thrown into the river with only a single light to guide her back to life.
After these mysterious shots, you are jolted into full attention when hospital light is switched on with a sound effect loud enough to startle the audience as a way to call everyone to wake up to reality. It feels as if the director was trying to make you experience the story in a way Saba did. The people who helped Saba recover, the doctor, and the police officer introduce the actual events while Saba herself is lying helplessly in a hospital bed surrounded by the hospital staff. This is a perfect way to demonstrate how helpless a delicate girl is when suppressed by a huge system she is fighting against. To bring back the century-old discussion of how much staging is allowed in documentaries, the director has done a great job of picturing it very realistically, even though shots are staged similarly as in Nanook of the North. This speaks volumes about the talent of the film-maker as she leads the interviewers to illustrate the story with great sincerity, almost as if they were reliving the tragedy all over again.
The first time we meet the girl and hear her talk about her love story, the sound of her voice is accompanied by images of the running river as if the director wanted us to see how her love is being washed away by the power of the stream. Yet, the most impressive scene for me is the reveal of the scar. Saba, who now looks perfectly normal, sits up on the bed and the camera lingers on her until she eventually turns her head to make visible her horrifying scar and a bloodshot eye. This is the greatest suspense of the movie as it is hard to imagine what a beast could have disfigured her like this. The author has indeed achieved the goal she set out to achieve. The viewer is remained perplexed and deeply concerned, asking himself/herself why in the modern world some human lives are still valued less than others.
As far as propaganda and ideology are concerned, critics may claim that the movie uses some propaganda elements. However, this is a re-enactment type of staging, which implies that it shows the sequence of events that took place without distorting the truth to impress the audience (Cardillo 22). The film attempts to struggle with the accepted ideology and start a national discourse about honor killings using the power of the documentary genre.
What makes this story so significant about the historical trajectory of the documentary is that it managed to attract the attention of the Pakistani government and convince people of authority to review their laws, which is indeed unprecedented. Before the movie was released, no one was concerned with the fact that most victims of honor killings do not survive (as Saba states in the movie, “I have never heard of a girl who has been thrown in the river and lived to tell the tale.”) (“A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”). This documentary is thereby exposing a situation that triggered a conversation on the international level. This proves the immense power of documentary film-making, which allows telling outstanding stories that otherwise would have received no recognition. Films like this can thereby be effectively used as tools for promoting social change.
“A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.” YouTube, uploaded by Universal Facts. 2017, Web.
Cardillo, Susan. Interactive Documentaries: Emerging Technologies for Social Change. Dissertation, Colorado Technical University, 2015.
Marquis, Elizabeth. ‘Just Act Naturally’: A Poetics of Documentary Performance. Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2009.