Whether intentionally or otherwise, it’s apt that “A Letter to the President” — the second feature by Afghan filmmaker Roya Sadat — shares a title with a 2012 essay by Erica Jong. The latter, addressed to President Obama, may push for the equal rights of women in an American context, but its vital concerns are hardly a world away from the impassioned feminist rhetoric of Sadat’s film, in which a strong-willed Kabul police chief, sentenced to death after accidentally killing her abusive husband, must address her country’s highest power to demand her life back.
Rough-edged as cinema, but pointed and persuasive as social polemic, this year’s Afghan foreign-language Oscar submission — from the country’s first female director to emerge in the post-Taliban era — is characterized by the unmistakable urgency of having been made under specifically challenging political conditions. Its furious rallying cry against a corrupt patriarchy will, however, resonate with audiences across the globe.
Sure to run well into 2018 regardless of the Academy’s verdict, “A Letter to the President’s” festival tour began at Locarno in August, and will be sustained particularly by programmers of human rights-themed showcases; certain films are made for post-screening Q&A sessions, and this is one. By the same reasoning, some international distribution may follow, though it’s less of a cinch, owing to a few bumps in the film’s technical construction and occasionally crude thriller mechanics. Message plainly outranks medium in Sadat’s filmmaking, which is not to say it’s formally straightforward: Both visually and narratively, “A Letter to the President” turns out to be a work of frames within frames, divides within divides.
Though it’s not the first film to portray a crisis of female oppression in an Islamic state, “A Letter to the President” is unusual in its focus on a subjugated protagonist of relatively high social standing, emphasizing an extreme gender hierarchy that runs across barriers of class and privilege. Soraya (a fine, resolute Leena Alam), a married mother of two, is the head of the Kabul Crime Division, a job that makes heavy demands on her time, to the consternation of her less-accomplished husband Karim and her gangster father-in-law — both of whom regard her working as a source of familial shame. Soraya remains defiant in the face of Karim’s violent censure: In one remarkable scene, she hits back harder when he slaps her across the face, knowing full well the price she’ll pay mere seconds later.
The men’s resentment intensifies when Soraya becomes involved in a regional investigation that supersedes the authority of male village elders with whom her father-in-law is criminally affiliated. The already toxic relationship between Soraya and Karim disintegrates entirely; in a final altercation, she defends herself by pushing him into a plate-glass window, killing him and landing herself directly in prison.
Soraya’s tragic tale, related largely in voiceover, forms the text of the “letter” — in reality, a book-length confessional — read by a fictitious President of Afghanistan (Mammnon Maghsodi) in the film’s bookending narrative, engineering a race-against-time climax as the possibility of a presidential pardon is floated ahead of her scheduled execution. It’s a slightly ungainly device that nonetheless adds a surprising streak of political ambiguity to Sadat and screenwriter Aziz Deildar’s angry cri de coeur. With the president’s convictions regarding Soraya’s case seemingly less fixed than that of the film’s other male figures of authority — including his aides, who urge him not to read the letter, offering instead a judgmental precis — a sliver of hope is permitted into the film’s otherwise damning portrait of systemic misogyny.
Bluntly edited to a dense, gripping 83 minutes, “A Letter to the President” is perhaps a touch overplotted: A subplot involving Soraya’s inadvertent betrayal by an enigmatically obsessive, portrait-painting well-wisher (played by Deildar) never quite clicks into place, even as it culminates in its own separate act of extremity. Alam is sufficiently riveting in the lead to render unwelcome any such focus-pulling; even when the script is at its most didactic, she gives proceedings a fully energized, exasperated human center.
Shooting in scorched, sober digital hues of tan and charcoal, often with theatrical flourishes of selective lighting, Sadat and cinematographer Behrouz Bhadrouj filter the action through a series of potentially obstructive layers to our view: Several key scenes of confrontation and revelation take place through partially reflective window panes or gauzy curtaining. It’s an unpretty, unsubtle but symbolically effective aesthetic ploy, alluding to any number of thinly concealed truths and abuses in modern Afghanistan. In “A Letter to the President,” women like Soraya — and Sadat, for that matter — have to shout all the louder to be heard above their society’s soundproofing.