A member of Pakistan’s transgender community, the Khusras, plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself in “Noor,” the feature debut of peripatetic helming-writing duo Cagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti. This beautifully shot, cross-country road drama has strong ethnographic appeal that more than makes up for its slender narrative. Further fest play is a given, with niche theatrical play likely to segue into broadcast exposure in the pic’s co-production countries.
Illiterate Shafiq (Noor) is a personable, effeminate-looking young man who does manual labor at a center where truck drivers commission elaborate, brightly colored decorations for their vehicles. After his trucker father died of an overdose, he started to dance with the Khusras to support his family. Then he fell in love with fellow dancer Hina (Mama Gurya), who talked him into undergoing medical castration. Now, their affair is over, and he wants to live like a man and find a woman who will accept him the way he is.
Shafiq’s wise, elderly boss, Baba (Baba Hussain), encourages his hopes, advising, “One must be brave in the search for love.” He also tells him about a mountain lake, shrouded in legend, where one can fulfill one’s dreams.
After a scuffle with a drunken rapist, Shafiq escapes in the assailant’s truck and heads north to the Shandur pass in search of the lake. Along the way, he encounters a group of deaf drummers who perform at funerals, putting mourners in a sufi-like trance. He also meets the unhappy Uzma (Uzma Ali), a Kathak dancer whose husband has taken their child and abandoned her.
Ankara-born Zencirci and Lyon-born Giovanetti started their dual directing career with short fiction and documentaries shot in the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe. Their m.o. is to find non-professional actors to play in stories based on their real lives; in the alert, sensitive, forthcoming Noor, they discovered the perfect person to provide a bridge between viewers and offbeat parts of Pakistani culture.
As the production moves north, away from the dusty heat of the Punjab along the Karakoram highway (the highest paved international roadway in the world) to the cool, isolated landscapes of Gilgit, the Hunza Valley and Shadur Lake, the superlative widescreen lensing of Jacques Ballard evinces a gritty magnificence. Although the craft package has European polish, the images are never picture-postcard pretty, but maintain a feeling of docu realism in tune with the non-pro thesps.
The atmospheric (and not over-used) score by Abaji is a definite plus.