The culture clash between North Americans and Afghanis, and the abhorrent tradition of honor killing in rural Muslim culture are explored with sensitivity in writer-helmer-thesp Nelofer Pazira’s first solo directing gig, “Act of Dishonor.” Pic’s schematic script indicates Pazira’s training as a journalist, and thesping from the non-pros here is sometimes too stiff to convince, but even so, this Afghanistan/Tajikistan-set drama packs a punch. Further fest play looks likely, especially at events focusing on human rights, but distribution prospects seem confined to niche honorable mentions.
Contempo-set story unfolds in a small village near the Afghani-Tajik border. The Taliban’s strict rules may have relaxed, but a young woman like Mena (the luminous Marina Golbahari, who played the title role in “Osama”) is still expected not to leave the confines of her family’s compound until she’s married. A fundamentally good girl, soon to be hitched to local bus driver Rahmat (Masood Serwary), Mena cares for her brothers and widowed father, Khak (Abdul Ghafar Qoutbyar), but snatches glimpses of the world through chinks in the wall.
Mena’s narrative arc meshes with two other main story strands. One concerns a refugee family from the village who have now returned, only to find their house occupied by others. From this clan, highly educated Ali (non-pro Ali Hazara, whose real-life history mirrors the story here) faces a tough choice between temporarily living in a U.N.-provided tent outside the village while he fights to regain his home, or seeking a new life in Kabul.
Meanwhile, a Western film crew has come to the village to make a film of their own, using the villagers as thesps. The film crew relies on Afghan-born but Canadian-bred interpreter Mejgan (writer-helmer Pazira, who played the lead in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 2001’s “Kandahar”) to communicate with the locals. Although highly educated and Westernized in many ways, Mejgan comes to question her own assumptions about the local culture through interaction with Mena, whom she tries to lure into taking part in the film — an act punishable by death.
Characters are frequently called on to spell out the issues at stake through expository, overly didactic dialogue, especially in the midsection. That said, things perk up considerably in the last reels, which generates genuine tension over what will happen to Mena. Both Golbahari and Serwary, as her troubled fiance (flashbacks reveal the source of his troubles), rep standouts among the Dari-phone thesps, creating a strong sense of sympathy for people caught in a ideologically torn culture.
Craft contributions are adequate but not outstanding. Pic benefits from spectacular landscapes, especially in scenes shot over the Tajikistan border, which, with its forbidding mountains and barren plateaus, instill a proper sense of the sublime.