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Review: Kamay


- Afghani filmmakers Ilyas Yourish and Shahrokh Bikaran’s intense documentary immerses the viewer in the world of a Hazara family following the suicide of one of the daughters

Review: Kamay

Afghani writer-director Ilyas Yourish and writer and contributing director Shahrokh Bikaran have just enjoyed the world premiere of their first feature-length documentary, Kamay, at Visions du Réel, where it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (see the news). They tell the story of a family from the Hazara minority, after one of the daughters committed suicide in 2017 because of harassment by a teacher at the University of Kabul.

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The film opens with a narrative title that briefly tells of the history of persecution of the Hazara people since the end of the 19th century. Then we are introduced to the family, consisting of fifty-something parents Younes and Hawa Khawari and their six remaining children, among whom the teenage Freshta, who is also planning to apply to the university, will be our guide. In her voice-over, she speaks directly to Zahra, her sister who was among the first Hazara people to get into institutional education after 2001, having enrolled in Veterinary Science in Kabul. Speaking softly, Freshta describes how she was climbing the mountain to find the kamay plant to send to Zahra for her research, as we watch her walk uphill in the snow with a sickle in her hand.

The family has a lawyer, Zohra, and we only learn about proceedings in the case through several phone calls and the few visits that Younes and Hawa make to Kabul. It takes days in an overcrowded van, navigating through the snow-covered mountains peppered with Taliban checkpoints, to get from their region of Daykundi to the capital. We see Zohra talking to students who have started protests at the campus, demanding justice, but they are reluctant to take the witness stand.

The film was shot before the Taliban takeover in 2021, but persecution of the Hazara escalated around 2016. The filmmakers, however, opt to immerse us in the living nightmare of the family, rather than tell a judicial or political story. These segments partly play out like an anthropological documentary depicting the Hazara way of life, except the Khawaris are palpably weighed down by their suffering. The directors rarely show their tears, but we hear crying and wailing in the harrowing scenes when they finally receive Zahra’s personal belongings. There are no interviews, except when Hawa expresses her fear and hatred of Kabul, and her wish for Freshta not to make it into the university.

Yourish and Bikaran create an intensely atmospheric picture, harnessing elements like snowstorms and the strong wind blowing over the family’s modest house, along with Jonathan Vanneste’s very present and loud sound design, which also includes explosions and gunfire echoing in the distance, signalling the Taliban advance. The mountainous Dyakundi is a majestic but unforgiving environment, especially in the winter, though as it was filmed over several years, the documentary shows us that spring can be quite gentle – Freshta falls asleep in the sun on a pile of pistachios. The landscape matches the protagonists’ state of mind, and we see symbolic details such as Zahra’s bloodied dress, strands of Freshta’s hair in close-up or a black scarf billowing in the wind.

The music score by Karim Bagilli is as ever-present as the sound design, with its droning strings often in dissonant keys. The filmmakers, who are themselves Hazara, immerse the viewer in the family’s painful world, guided by Freshta’s haunting voice-over, surrounded by the harsh landscapes and soaking in the grief, frustration and fear for the future, especially Freshta’s. It certainly seems bleak, especially after the recent news that the Taliban has walked back its decision to allow education for girls in Afghanistan.

Kamay is a co-production by Afghanistan’s Kamay Film, Belgium’s Clin d’oeil Films, Germany’s ROW Pictures and France’s Temps Noir. CAT&Docs has the international rights.

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