The women-in-prison genre has seldom seen an entry like “Love Crimes of Kabul,” in which documaker Tanaz Eshaghian directly indicts Afghani society for its treatment of women and indirectly indicts the West for its involvement in a system so mortifyingly barbaric. HBO exposure will give the pic a good ride, but festival play and perhaps even an arthouse release could further its reach.
Eshaghian, the Iranian-American director of “Be Like Others” (which concerned Iran’s coercive policy of sex-change operations for homosexuals), turns her camera on Badam Bagh prison, half of whose 125 inmates are incarcerated for “moral crimes”: adultery, premarital sex, running away from home (often from an abusive household). From a Western perspective, the subject matter is the stuff of righteous indignation. But what Eshaghian reveals about the systemic corruption within a supposedly theocratic institution will transcend culture in its ability to exasperate.
The case of Sabereh, a 17-year-old turned in by her own father after he caught her with a boy, is perhaps the film’s most flagrant case of distorted justice. Only after her virginity is established by medical examination is she accused of sodomy, which seems to be an even more heinous offense than premarital intercourse. While Sabereh maintains her innocence to the camera, the court claims she’s confessed. Eshaghian can’t prove the court is lying, since she’s barred from photographing the trials themselves, but the circumstantial evidence is fairly convincing.
How the filmmakers obtained such access to the prison and its inmates is wonder enough, but what Eshaghian and d.p. Kat Patterson shoot is so fly-on-the-wall immersive as to dissolve the wall between story and screen. Kareema, unmarried and pregnant, has a conversation with her mother through a prison fence that is simply astounding in its frankness.
Similarly honest are the conversations between Aleema, who fled her abusive home, and Zia, with whom she took refuge. The subsequent web of accusations and half-truths — including Zia’s insistence that Aleema marry her son, whom she has somehow dishonored — utterly confuses the facts, but the naked bitterness of the exchanges is startling. Whether Eshaghian’s subjects thought they were protected by the language barrier, or whether they’re simply not very camera-savvy, they seem utterly free of inhibitions, if not of anger, bile and regret.
“If they were good women, they wouldn’t be here,” says a prison guard at the beginning of the film, thus establishing the attitude that seems to guide Afghani justice. The “love criminals” of Kabul are more or less held in the same regard as the killers and smugglers they’re incarcerated with, even by each other; one of the film’s more fascinating aspects is the lack of empathy many of the prisoners seem to feel toward each other, and the judgment each one feels entitled pass on her fellow inmates. If a woman at Badam Bagh feels she can condemn the morality by which she’s been prosecuted, it’s only because she has nothing else to lose.
Production values are adequate, the visuals clearly reflecting the circumstances under which shooting took place.