A naive Australian sets out to marry a sheltered Pakistani in “Donkey in Lahore,” a study in patience and perseverance from Iran-born, Oz-based director Faramarz K-Rahber. Like the helmer’s previous feature docu, “Fahimeh’s Story,” it’s a fascinating tale involving a mix of cultural difference, marital expectation and family obligation. The DV-shot pic overcomes its low-budget origins to deliver compelling, emotionally resonant viewing, and deserves a place on international broadcast skeds before seguing to DVD, where it could serve as an educational tool for other starry-eyed lovers.
K-Rahber’s narration sets up the story. In 2000, Brian, an attractive but impecunious 27-year-old puppeteer from Brisbane and avid member of the local Goth subculture, traveled to Lahore for a festival. There, he met and fell in love with 17-year-old Amber, a devout Muslim.
Over the next two years, Brian and Amber continued their relationship by correspondence. K-Rahber started filming in late 2002, shortly before Brian converts to Islam, taking the name Aamir, in order to be accepted by Amber’s family.
Although his intentions are sincere, Brian/Aamir seemingly gives his new identity as little thought as his Goth dress-up. Helping his hippie parents to remember his fresh moniker, he breezily suggests, “Think of it as a meerkat or a mere mortal.”
Some three years after they first met, Aamir travels to Pakistan again and enlists Amber’s brother-in-law Aftab as his intermediary for the marriage proposal. Since Amber’s family speaks no English and Aftab is less than fluent, the discussion results in some frustrating and unintentionally comic miscommunication.
Unfortunately, Aamir’s financial situation doesn’t permit him to comply with the future in-laws’ request that he buy and furnish a house in Lahore for his bride. He proposes to bring Amber to Australia instead, but the process of acquiring her visa is more difficult than he expects.
For visa purposes, Aamir must prove their relationship, so he returns to Pakistan and the pair publicly celebrates their nikah (marriage contract). But there’s no wedding night since the oft-delayed ceremony takes place on the eve of his return and he can’t afford to change his ticket. En route to the airport, a dismayed Amber learns that his parents both drink alcohol and his sister’s a lesbian.
As time passes, the separation continues and tensions mount. Amber and Aamir develop health problems and her family’s reputation suffers. When the visa finally comes through, both bride and groom have second thoughts.
K-Rahber knew Brian and his unconventional lifestyle for many years before filming. The helmer’s sensitivity and knowledge of Islamic customs earned the cooperation of Amber’s family and enabled him to confront his subjects with realistic questions without appearing condescending or judgmental. All Pakistani subjects seem natural in front with of the camera, while Brian/Aamir practically uses it as a psychiatric tool.
Five years in the making, resulting in more than 200 hours of footage, the pic reps a marvel of coherent editing, with the helmer’s narration and graphics providing context and moving the story along. A 52-minute cut went out in Oz via SBS.
The eloquent camerawork, predominantly close-ups in close quarters, reveals physical expressions of unease and doubt that the subjects were reluctant to put into words. Apt score by Colin Webber also illustrates the East-West divide.
Title derives from a special puppet Aamir brings to Pakistan, hoping to launch a television series called “Little Donkeys in Lahore,” but also has metaphorical resonance.