'Kamay': Seeking justice

Shot over six years, at one level the film feels like an unwitting ethnographic documentation of a little-known community by the filmmaker who himself belongs to it.
A still from the movie 'Kamay'
A still from the movie 'Kamay'

CHENNAI : The poignant pull of Ilyas Yourish’s documentary 'Kamay' hinges on the specificity of the misfortunes of its subject just as much as it gains from the essential universality that informs their struggle for justice. The documentary revolves around a disempowered family in remote central Afghanistan. Yourish also contextualises their present-day adversity in Afghan history—the oppression of the ethnic Hazara community in the late 19th century by the tyrannical Afghan Amir, Abdul Rahman Khan. The Hazaras were pillaged and massacred to suppress their resistance to autonomy.

In one incident, forty Hazara women were supposed to have jumped off a cliff to escape enslavement and rape by the Amir’s forces. Cut to the present. While the Taliban is on the rise to power in contemporary Afghanistan, one such Hazara family—the Khawaris—is seeking the truth behind the sudden death by suicide of the elder daughter Zahra Khawari, who had moved to Kabul for higher studies. She was one among the first generation of Hazaras who got access to “education without discrimination”. But not quite. The seeming opportunity came with accompanying humiliation and harassment at the hands of the empowered professors. Was her suicide an act of protest against the endemic inequities and bigotry? The tragedy is narrated on screen by her sister Freshta Khawari. The Afghanistan-Belgium-Germany-France co-production premiered recently in the international competition section at Visions du Reel.

Shot over six years, at one level the film feels like an unwitting ethnographic documentation of a little-known community by the filmmaker who himself belongs to it. First few minutes into the film, what strikes you most about the Khawaris, living deep in the mountains, is the arduousness of daily life at home in Daikundi, be it the toil in the kitchen or the farm.

A parallel sense of exhaustion and frustration marks their pursuit of justice—battling the apathetic bureaucracy, legal loopholes and obstacles besides travelling for days from Daikundi to Kabul on treacherous, snow-covered roads with growing danger from the resurgent Taliban, the fear of them lurking in the hills. One wonders if they would have even found time to grieve and process the loss properly.

The judicial delays in getting possession of Zahra’s belongings, with the court acquitting the university and the professor of all charges despite the evidence—these are elements anyone in South Asia would be able to identify with. The toxicity in academia is as relatable—the power play by the professors, their constant rejection of research theses and bullying.

Yourish concomitantly lends a poetic treatment to the family’s predicaments. It’s evident in the way he frames the pristine, quiet mountains against the chaotic, noisy streets of Kabul. It’s the love that binds the Khawari family together. A love that extends to the animals they own and even the plants that they use day-to-day. The title of the film itself refers to an herb found in the mountains inhabited by the Hazaras. It was something that Zahra had asked Freshta to collect for her research. And she still treks to the mountains in her search for it. A wild, self-reliant plant, it becomes emblematic of the cussedness of the Khawaris to claim their civil rights.

It’s tough to not get affected when Freshta, ready as she is to enter the university herself, talks about Zahra’s last phone call when she spoke to every member of the family. Or when a differently abled brother cries incessantly for her, as though verbalising his loss of and longing for Zahra. However, the most moving portions come towards the end when Freshta talks about how the fate of the two sisters seems aligned. Both were forced to leave things unfinished, because of the toxicity heaped on her, and because of the impending totalitarianism of the Taliban. Incidentally, the Khawaris were determined not to leave their home and mountains but as the film shows, things took a different turn. Their fight for justice hangs in balance for now.

Cinema Without Borders

In this weekly column, the writer introduces you to powerful cinema from across the world

Film: Kamay

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