Three Muslims in Berlin struggle to do the right thing in Burhan Qurbani’s good-looking feature debut, “Shahada,” a German film-school exam project that was a surprise inclusion in this year’s Berlinale competition. Tackling hot-button issues that are contentious in many religious communities, including abortion and sexual orientation, Afghanistan-born Qurbani’s level-headed approach thankfully avoids preachy melodrama, but it never quite gets under his characters’ skin, either. Topical pic should see further fest play and decent B.O. in Germany, with minor Euro niche potential a possibility.
Maryam (Maryam Zaree) is the daughter of a liberal imam, Vedat (Vedat Erincin), a widower. Very much a Westernized girl, Maryam wonders whether the difficult aftermath of her messy illegal abortion is a punishment from God. Too ashamed to talk to her father about it, she drifts into more radical religious thinking.
One of Vedat’s students at his Koran school is Senegalese Muslim Sammi (Jeremias Acheampong), who works at a market hall with his best friend, Daniel (Sergej Moya), a German. Sammi’s developing feelings for his friend, who is gay, are difficult to reunite with his firm religious beliefs.
At Sammi and Daniel’s workplace, a thirtysomething cop of Turkish origin, Ismail (Carlo Ljubek), checks the papers of the immigrant workers. Last in line is Bosnian Leyla (Marija Skaricic), who was a victim of an accident that also involved Ismail, who has never been able to forgive himself for it.
Maryam’s and Sammi’s stories, focusing on the generation of religious youngsters who have to reconcile forming their identities with living between two cultures, are the strongest. Qurbani neatly explores the effort it takes for them to live by the rules of their religion, and also suggests that these rules aren’t set in stone because each individual is different. The story of Ismail — who is older, has his own family and is the least religious of the three protags — never quite feels part of the mix, despite editor Simon Blasi’s nimble cutting between the occasionally overlapping storylines. Pic’s division into chapters (“Devotion,” “Sacrifice”) isn’t really necessary.
Though Qurbani, who also co-write the screenplay, shows a deft hand in setting up his scenes, he is not quite as successful in taking them through to their final payoff, and there’s no sense at the end of the film that we know any of the characters very well. The director’s tendency, as with the films of Ferzan Ozpetek, to circle the protags with his camera while the music swells on the soundtrack to illuminate their inner struggles doesn’t always work. Some of the thesps, notably Zaree, are much better at conveying their feelings with words and actions than with simple looks.
“Shahada,” which can be roughly translated as “faith,” looks very good, especially for a first feature (not only for the director but also for the d.p. and production designer). Handsome widescreen lensing, in a combination of static shots and handheld camera during the tenser moments, is aces, and transfer from HD to 35mm is spotless. Production and costume design firmly place the story in contempo Berlin’s Muslim community, with Maryam’s changing sense of dress a subtle indicator of what her character is going through.