While the Middle East certainly has no monopoly when it comes to repression and violence against women – four women a day are murdered by men in the United States – the difference is that it’s legally condoned there, or at least tolerated. In particular in its most brutal and premeditated manifestation, honor killings.
The documentary Quest For Honor not only penetrates that secretive and dangerous complicit male culture existing in Iraqi Kurdistan. But the mostly female crew courageously confronts hostility and death threats as they persist in their investigative mission to save lives. Constituting activist filmmaking at its most exemplary, both on and off camera.
Photographer turned first time septuagenarian director Mary Ann Smothers Bruni also links this heinous, actually universal tradition in myriad forms, not only to notions of threatened masculine pride and self-esteem, but the historical concept of women as male property and a possession and commodity regulated by men. And the long accepted practice of selling and exchanging women, even female infants, as brides through trade agreements involving barter, money, or matrimonial swaps.
Bruni accompanies local Kurdish female activists and journalists from The Women’s Media Center, as they investigate the brutal honor killing of one young woman shot to death in the desert, and another hiding out in one of the recently established safe houses for women. Where she is nevertheless hunted down and shot multiple times by male kin, but miraculously survives and is recovering from her injuries, though still terrified. This, after fleeing to the Center when relatives attempted to force her into a sack attached to a concrete block, and push her into a river.
A policeman back at the scene of the crime in the desert remarks that shooting this young girl three times with a kalashnikov at such close range, ‘shows enormous hatred.’ While it’s noted that no man has been convicted for killing a woman there in recent memory. Later, a regional mayor insists to a skeptical film crew that honor killings have in fact decreased. And that discovered bodies – actually very few who are only accidentally found, since most just disappear – are simply women who have thrown themselves over cliffs and into rivers.
And while Quest For Honor exposes the horrors that are visited upon these women, it is at the same time a story of hope and determination, as the filmmakers and journalists ignore threats of death, or being stoned or having their tongues cut out from relatives and villagers. Meanwhile, back at the Women’s Media Center, the outrage and plight of these female victims is publicized through the first ever women’s newspaper created in Kurdistan, as a linked tool of education, enlightenment and hopefully social change.
The tightly knit and determined team of film crew and activists visits victims and perpetrators alike. One mournful mother behind bars for being complicit in her daughter’s murder, is shockingly revealed to be a powerless victim herself, married off at the age of thirteen and terrorized by relatives into absolute subservience and obedience to her husband.
And during a subsequent visit to the small children of the wounded woman in hiding, in effect kidnapped from her and brainwashed by the hostile kin, they express hatred of their mother, insist they never want to see her again, and refuse to call her mommy. Though her tiny daughter ultimately confesses in the course of the persistent interview, that her mother visits her in dreams at night, to hug and kiss her.
And in a rare moment of odd comic relief in the course of this chilling journey, one traditionally garbed older woman with a brave sense of humor mocks the mandated lifelong subservience to males. We’re forced to stand up every time a man enters the room, she complains. But I got so tired of standing up constantly, that I simply followed my husband around behind him the entire day instead.
Apparently some progress has been made, as the activists led by The Women Center’s Runak Faraj, who has carried out this mission for sixteen years, succeeded in fighting for a law on the books proclaiming that the murder of a woman constitutes ‘the killing of a human being.’ Though traditional tribal families defiantly persist in covertly carrying out honor killings, by hiding the bodies or throwing them off cliffs.
And Runak has already visited two hundred of those unmarked female graves. Though the grave for the murdered woman discovered in the desert is the first where an actual tombstone exists, placed there by the authorities. So while progress is made, much work urgently needs to continue.
Quest For Honor opens at New York City’s IFC Center on August 6th, and at the Arclight Cinemas Hollywood in Los Angeles on August 13th.
4 [out of 4] stars