Documentarian/writer Khadija Al-Salami makes a timely foray into fictional features with the child-bride tale “I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced.” Though clumsy at times and more successful at straightforward narrative than at nuance, the pic boldly presents the problem of Yemen’s kiddie-bride culture through the real story of Nojood Ali, whose much-discussed 2010 autobiography forms the basis for Salami’s movie. As a social-issue film, “Nojoom” can be praised for raising awareness and avoiding the sort of Western-view exoticism often infecting images from Yemen. Dubai’s top prize should help bag slots at fests and human-rights showcases.
The helmer is no stranger to the subject, having herself been forced into marriage at the age of 11. While it doesn’t make the storytelling any subtler, her perspective as a local adds a welcome layer of authenticity, notwithstanding the melodramatic core. The change in name from Nojood to Nojoom is clarified when the character explains that her father, disappointed at having a daughter, called her Nojood, meaning “hidden” in local dialect, but once older, she chose Nojoom, meaning “stars.”
Flashback structures are as overused in recent cinema as voiceovers, yet here it’s a canny decision, as the disturbing sight of a 10-year-old (Reham Mohammed) telling a judge she wants a divorce drives home in visceral terms exactly what it means for a girl of that age to be forced into such a position (granted, the heavy-handed title serves a similar function, but it’s the visual element that makes the reality so unnerving). From there, the pic jumps back for some prehistory: Nojoom comes from a small village high up among mountainous coffee fields. Trouble begins in the poor family when her father, Ahmed (Ibrahim Alashmori), takes a second wife (Shafikha Alanisi), leading to tensions at home with Nojoom’s mother (Naziha Alansi).
Then Nojoom’s older sis, Najla, is raped, and Ahmed marries her off to the rapist to avoid a blood feud. Scandal erupts a few years later anyway when gossips suggest Najla wasn’t a virgin at her wedding; to save face, Ahmed moves the family to the capital, Sana’a, but his source of income dries up. Needing a cash influx, he marries Nojoom off to a country bumpkin (Sawadi Alkainai) willing to pay a dowry.
Since child brides are fairly common in Yemen, especially in the countryside, no one thinks twice except Nojoom, who is brought to her much older husband’s village, where she’s forced to submit in the conjugal bed. Life becomes hell: Her husband chews qat all day while her mother-in-law (Munirah Alatas) seems to have learned slave-keeping tips from Cinderella’s stepmother. After months of being unable to control his bride, the husband brings her back to Sana’a, hoping her family can knock some sense into her, but instead she runs away to the courts, where a kindly judge (Adnan Alkhader) offers protection during the divorce proceedings.
Dramatizing Ali’s story probably offers greater potential for exposure than a documentary could have managed, though “Nojoom” shouldn’t be mistaken for arthouse fare: This is a film designed to draw attention to the disturbing prevalence of child marriages in Yemen, and it uses expected melodramatic flourishes to achieve its results. While by the end, Salami tries to shift blame from the parents to a society that blindly accepts an appalling custom, she rarely manages to make her characters anything other than illustrations for her argument. Saudis, too, come in for excoriation, in the form of an entitled poobah who’s using Nojoom’s brother Sami (Husam Alsanabani) as an indentured servant.
In contrast with many pics shot in Yemen, here the lensing by Victor Credi conveys the country’s almost otherworldly beauty while still making Sana’a and the villages look like lived-in places rather than tourist sites. Editing has some praiseworthy moments, such as when crosscutting between Nojoom’s struggle in the bridal chamber and men dancing outside builds to a predictable but nevertheless emotional climax.