Striving to understand how fellow members of the fair sex, and mothers to boot, can cold-bloodedly blow up others, Assouline seems surprised to come away with no answers.

Palestinian women serving time in Israeli prisons are the focus of Natalie Assouline’s conflicted docu “Brides of Allah.” Striving to understand how fellow members of the fair sex, and mothers to boot, can cold-bloodedly blow up others, Assouline seems surprised to come away with no answers, despite the clearly rehearsed responses to her questions. Notwithstanding this quietly revealed but obvious manipulation, she lingers on maternal moments as if still amazed that a mother can kill. Though ultimately adding little to the debate, interest is generally maintained; docu fests or those spotlighting Middle East topics could take a look.

Format is straightforward, with the helmer bringing a DV cam into prison and interviewing the women over the course of two years. Conditions inside appear remarkably lenient, and sentencing is often lighter than expected. Most have been put away for various levels of terrorist activity, and practically all wear headscarves along with the long robes of devout Muslim women.

None of the inmates express any remorse, though they’re obviously toting a line set down by the strongest of the group, particularly Manal and Kahira, both convicted for aiding suicide bombers. In Manal’s case, the failed attack was supposed to go off in a kindergarten, while Kahira, sentenced to more than three life terms, drove a bomber to a Jerusalem rendezvous. She’s also the mother of four children, who view her as a hero.

Such comments form docu’s most chilling sections, as the brainwashing gets passed down from mother to child with apparently no attempt within prison to counter the fanaticism. Pregnant Samar, convicted of making bombs, gives birth in jail, where her lullabies run to songs about “martyrs.” No wonder Ayat says she’s dreamt of being a suicide bomber ever since she was a baby. Assouline’s inability to comprehend this attitude is reflected in her editing, cut for maximum contrast: Kahira discusses the aftermath of a suicide attack, followed immediately by shots of Samar singing to her newborn.

Glimpses of Manal grilling the prisoners on their responses to queries make it obvious that honest replies will not be forthcoming. Only the subtitles emphasize this counterpoint, as questions are filtered through a translator and answers are discussed and processed before being retranslated. Clearly Assouline isn’t going to crack their studied shells, so instead she keeps circling metaphorically around them, listening to what they’re willing to reveal and then shooting them for far too long saying goodbye to visiting children.

Ranal is the sole inmate whose independence of thought provides a needed note of honesty; while others talk of jihad, she adds the corrective, arguing that many committed their crimes less for political reasons and more thanks to pressures at home. The only other dissenting voice is an off-screen woman whose voice is changed, but this feels thrown in and poorly layered into the rest.

Lensing is largely handheld, firmly in a docu tradition of studied unstylishness. Digital quality is a little harsh, but still works on the large screen.

Brides of Allah

Docu — Israel

Production

A Pie Films, Ephrati Prods. production in collaboration with Arte, 2DF. (International sales: First Hand Films, Zurich.) Produced by Talia Kleinhendler, Ayelet Ephrati. Directed, written by Natalie Assouline

Crew

Camera (color, DV/MiniDV-to-DigiBeta PAL), Assouline, Gonen Glazer, Asher Ben Yair, Avigayil Sperber; editor, Sarah Salomon; music, Ophir Leibovitz; sound, Ronen Nagel, Sharon Louzon. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum). February 7, 2008. Running time: 75 MIN. (Arabic, Hebrew, English dialogue)

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