Social-issue docu “I Was Worth 50 Sheep” uses one family’s story to draw attention to the plight of young girls sold as brides by their impoverished relatives in return for livestock or land, a traditional Afghan tribal practice. Eschewing contextual information on this culturally entrenched custom or statistics about how widespread it is, Swedish helmer Nima Sarvestani lets his subjects speak for themselves as he follows them over the course of a year. Supported by a consortium of broadcasters including ITVS Intl., pic nabbed the Swedish docu award in Gothenburg and will air on some American public television stations.
In the city of Mazar-e Sharif, lively, illiterate, 16-year-old Sabere relates how, after the death of her father, her cousins let an elderly Talib buy her. The man, a wanted criminal, was reputed to have killed his previous wives, and abused Sabere badly before she eventually managed to flee to a women’s shelter.
Through the shelter, Sabere reunites with her mother and grandmother; her stepfather, Abdol Khalegh; and her 10-year-old half-sister, Farzaneh. In spite of Abdol Khalegh’s professed willingness to help Sabere obtain a divorce, he has already accepted a down payment for Farzaneh’s bride price. Although Abdol Khalegh claims to have arranged to keep Farzeneh at home until she turns 16, the purchasing clan is pushing to have her immediately, and he seems likely to cave in to their demands. A dutiful daughter, Farzaneh (who has never been to school) says she accepts her fate because of tradition.
Filmed primarily in cramped indoor spaces in an earnest, artless style, the pic benefits from the contrast provided when the camera follows Abdol Khalegh onto the crowded streets where even less fortunate burqa-covered women look like bundles of cloth, begging in the dust next to their crippled offspring. Testimony from the social workers at the shelter provides perspective on the difficulties and dangers faced by educated Afghan working women.
Best part of the merely serviceable tech package is the lightly used traditional music score by Mehrdad Hoveida. Pic is also available in 52-minute and 58-minute versions for broadcast.
Helmer is the brother of better-known documentarian Nahid Persson Sarvestani “(“The Queen and I”).