Breaking from his ongoing, interlocking series of San Francisco-set “9 x Night” features, Amerindie vet Rob Nilsson’s “Samt” goes far afield to dramatize the divide between traditional and modernizing gender roles in Jordan. Clearly a more-than-collaborative effort with nonpro thesps, vid-shot pic manages with docudrama-style simplicity to provide considerable insight into the debate over women’s freedom in modern Muslim societies. Timely issue should make this modest but winning effort popular on the fest circuit this season, with specialized telecast possible farther down the line.
Self-confident, cocky Jihad (played by thesp of the same name) feigns indifference when some blokes at the auto-parts junkyard question him about his younger sister Ashtar (Suha Najjar). They’re aware she’s been given parental permission to attend a weekend-long youth retreat, and in their conservative view, that’s an inappropriate amount of freedom for an unattached young woman. “These aren’t our Arab customs. Women stay in the home,” one bluntly puts it.
Jihad puts up a good front, but in fact he, too, is troubled by their parents’ decision. Pressing the point with his father, he’s told to leave it alone — times change, and Ashtar has merited this degree of trust.
But Jihad can’t let the matter go. In fact, he goes so far as to sneak onto the gated retreat’s grounds, where he immediately susses Ashtar won permission to attend by fibbing: She’d claimed the event would be for girls only, but there are young men here too. Soon discovered, Jihad angrily confronts a mortified Ashtar before fellow students separate and calm the two.
Choosing to stay and observe, Jihad soon comes to admire the seriousness of these youths as they discuss politics, nationalism, women’s rights and so forth. Even their occasional revelry (singing and dancing) is beyond reproach save by the strictest fundamentalist standard.
Deep bond between brother and sister soon reasserts itself, though Jihad is insistent Ashtar come clean with their parents. Final segment leaves the retreat compound for a field trip to some ancient ruins, where poetical backdrop underlines pic’s conciliatory mood.
More abstract interludes of desert imagery provide breaks from a loose central narrative that’s clearly largely improvised and occasionally a bit rough in execution. Nonpro thesps sometimes can’t help glancing at camera; interior shots are sometimes too dark. Nonetheless, sum effect is at once casual and graceful.
Feature is billed as the first to originate in Jordan, as well as being the initial product of a ongoing government-sponsored filmmaking workshop; the crew consisted of Jordanian apprentices under pro supervision. Title means “silence.”