This review was updated on Dec. 20, 2006.
A political docu with a difference, “Enemies of Happiness” follows National Assembly candidate Malalai Joya, a 28-year-old Afghani woman, as she trods the local campaign trail, dodging death threats along the way. Unfussily assembled by Danish helmer Eva Mulvad (Anja Al-Erhayem gets a co-directing credit), pic quietly celebrates its heroine’s fierce determination to reform her country’s attitude toward women, starting with saving a young girl from an arranged marriage to an opium baron. “Happiness” will make feminist-minded auds feel especially good, but its current one-hour running time will restrict it mostly to TV airings and human-rights-oriented festivals.
Opening scene shows Malalai Joya being banished in 2003 from the Loya Jirga (Afghanistan’s constitutional assembly) for denouncing the presence of “criminals” in the assembly, warlords who among other crimes have oppressed women in the past.
Fast-forward to 2005, with Joya, now running for a seat on the National Assembly, being awakened in the middle of the night by a death threat. Apparently unruffled by the danger, she smiles at the irony that the danger forces her to don a face-concealing veil, or burqa, which she successfully persuaded many other Afghani women to stop wearing.
Apart from the Central Asian setting, the pic is much like many other films about campaigning politicians, from Robert Drew’s “Primary” (1960) to 2005 docu “Street Fight,” as it illustrates Joya’s bond with her constituents. The candidate is seen talking to a feisty 100-year-old woman, who proudly gets down on her knees to demonstrate how she used to plant mines to blow up Soviets years ago.
Later, she tries to act as an intermediary between a drug lord and his unwilling fiancee, a mere slip of a teenager named Rahela. When told Rahela has threatened to set herself on fire if she’s forced to marry him, the drug lord merely shrugs and says if that happened, he’d pay the family compensation.
As film moves towards the climactic election day (the result hardly comes as a surprise), Mulvad and Al-Erhayem sketch in enough detail to convey a sense of how Afghani society is transitioning from the Taliban regime into a more modern state. There’s no doubt the filmmakers’ sympathies lie with Joya and the women, and the pic is largely told from the young politician’s point of view — literally at one point, when the camera shows what the world looks like from behind a burqa.
Pleasant soundtrack by Thomas Knak, Jesper Skaaning and Anders Remmer draws on indigenous instruments and folksy tunes in the pic’s multiple montage segments. Zillah Bowes’ lensing adheres to low-key cinema verite principles, seldom drawing attention to itself apart from the aforementioned burqa-eye-view.