Education is emancipation in “The Exam,” a potent social drama about a high school student who will be forced into an arranged marriage unless she can pass a series of university entrance exams. Punctuating its pro-feminist messages with moral and ethical questions about the extremely risky measures taken by the girl to ensure success, the fourth feature by leading Kurdish filmmaker Shawkat Amin Korki (“Memories of Stone”) is packaged with all the suspense and tension of a tightly wound crime thriller. Continuing Korki’s impressive run of features about Iraqi Kurdish life that began with “Crossing the Dust” and “Kick Off,” “The Exam” is a strong addition to the growing number of films about young women in patriarchal societies who are railing against cultural tradition and want to make their own decisions about marriage and motherhood.
Korki and co-writer Mohamed Reza Gohari cleverly tell their tale through two sets of female eyes. Teenager Rojin (Vania Salar) is dreading the thought of marriage to a man she doesn’t like. Her sister, Shilan (Avan Jamal), is trapped in a loveless marriage to controlling husband Sardar (Hussein Hassan Ali), and wants to save Rojin from a similar fate. Worse still, their widowed father Aziz (Hama Rashid Haras) has found a woman who will marry him, but on the proviso that Rojin is also married.
The dual perspective allows “The Exam” to cast a broad and penetrating eye on gender issues, economic disparity and social inequity in a place that has experienced a great deal of conflict and suffering over many years. Though no specific time-stamp is given for this story set in the eastern city of Sulaymaniyah, it seems to be around 2017, with news of the imminent ousting of ISIL from its Mosul stronghold filtering through on radio announcements and mentioned briefly in a few conversations. War and fighting are never shown here, but the scars of conflict are everywhere.
Having already attempted suicide following the disappearance and presumed death of the boy she loved, Rojin at first seems resigned to her fate and does not fit the image of a feisty heroine who bravely stands up to the system in the name of self-determination. That role is taken up with clear-eyed intensity by Shilan, who is determined for Rojin to pass the exams at any cost.
Shilan’s quest to protect Rojin’s future leads her to make contact with property developer Shamal (Kawar Qadir) and his offsider “Mr. Engineer” (Hushyar Nerwayi). Operating out of the basement of a half-built English-language school on the outskirts of town, the shady duo run a lucrative sideline business selling answers to exam questions. For a hefty fee, Shilan will be supplied with information once the exam starts and can call Rojin, who will be required to wear a cell phone strapped to her body and have a tiny Bluetooth receiver inserted into her ear. That’s just one part of a complex scam that requires split-second timing and coordination between various arms of the cheating network.
Shilan is far from the only customer prepared to hand over vast sums of cash and sell her jewelry if required. Dozens of families from all walks of life are in exactly the same position. The stakes become even higher for Shilan when financial circumstance forces her to become an active player in the scheme’s planning and execution.
Everything runs smoothly at first but as the series of six exams continues, suspicions are raised by Mr. Jamal (Shwan Attoof), a crusading teacher who instigates strict security checks on students and calls for a total wi-fi and cellular blackout around the school. In one of the film’s most memorable and suspenseful sequences, Shamal and Mr. Engineer sidestep the problem by handing walkie-talkies to Shilan and many other participants before herding them into a huge meat delivery truck and driving close enough to the school for signals to be transmitted and received.
“The Exam” delivers strong suspense and a nice streak of black humor while inviting viewers to consider the moral complexities of Rojin’s involvement in the scheme. The heart of the matter is whether cheating can be justified when it is so rampant — almost everyone seems to be doing it and dozens of students are caught along the way — and when the consequences of not cheating are almost too awful to think about.
On the other side of the equation is the fiercely upright Mr. Jamal, whose obsession with weeding out wrongdoers, even if it means using strong physical force, brings him into unseemly conflict with head teacher Ms. Munira (Nigar Osman) and eventually exposes an aspect of his past that further complicates and enriches the moral and ethical dimensions of the story. The biggest questions surround Shilan, who’s clearly living vicariously through Rojin and exposing her to great danger in an illegal activity, but for reasons that many viewers will immediately understand and approve.
Very well performed and nicely filmed in widescreen with long takes and moody, film noir-ish lighting touches by DP Adib Sobhani, “The Exam” uses the murky moral ground it treads to send a clear message that young women such as Rojin deserve the right to determine their own path in life without the levels of fear and risk depicted here. It’s to Korki’s great credit that he does this in the guise of a slick crime caper with broad audience appeal.