The prison horrors inflicted by King Hassan II in ’70s Morocco receive uncompromising treatment in the explosive “Jawhara, Jail Girl,” which has provoked intense debate since its March 2004 release. Like helmer Saad Chraibi’s similarly femme-based “Women … and Women” and “Thirst,” pic is itself part of the slow Moroccan shuffle toward liberalization. However, “Jawhara” is less gripping as a drama and, though plot is well-greased, characterization suffers under the script’s pressing need to ram home its agenda. Natural home for this one is in political fest sidebars.
Inspired by books written by victims, pic is the story of Safia (Mouna Fettou) as narrated by her daughter Jawhara, now a mature woman.
Safia, an actress in a political theater company, and her husband Said (Yassine Ahjam), are arrested during a rehearsal. She is thrown into jail and raped, but Said escapes imprisonment. Five months pass, during which Safia’s family searches fruitlessly for her, and then Said is arrested again and tortured. But, he is quickly released and becomes the responsibility of his policeman brother, Hassan (Mohamed Khouyi).
Jawhara is born in jail — significantly, the terrifying female guard assists with the birth. Said escapes from his brother and then breaks into Hassan’s office to steal torture videotapes to use for blackmail.
The trial of Safia and her fellow prisoners is presented as a cartoon — a device which, typical of the movie, is punchy but not very subtle. Also lacking subtlety, Jawhara as a child is always shown playing with a toy airplane, asymbol of freedom which is overdone.
The litany of horrors which pic presents are suggestive of even worse horrors which cannot be portrayed. The physical claustrophobia and fear of prison life is powerfully rendered.
Perfs are efficient but little more, and the forward momentum of the plot does not allow pic the breathing space to allow the viewer to get to know these people better — particularly Safia. Lensing is often handheld, augmenting a sense of documentary authenticity.