Within the first minute of the Sahar, an excellent Canadian drama to come out of British Columbia, Nadim, the loyal son and conflicted observer of the film’s events is being questioned in a police interrogation room. The high angle and running time-code give away the setting, and he is asked, “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
What seems a set up to a traditional crime mystery story is something of a red herring—crime is not what director Alexander Farah has in mind—at least not primarily. The mystery serves an important role of framing and foreshadowing the next 14 minutes of a highly nuanced, and extremely effective inspection of one family’s poisonous dynamics.
Set in 2007, our family in question are Canadian immigrants from Afghanistan. Nadim’s parents struggle to understand the carefree and westernized lifestyle of their daughter Sahar. With tension high and tolerance low, the household remains at a standstill, waiting for her to come home.
One of short film’s strongest qualities is the many diverse viewpoints it is able to present. This is in contrast of course to our dominant modes of entertainment, where something like Fresh off the Boat can be hailed as a seismic achievement for diversity. So, as a male of the American majority, thoughtful but unflinching stories of immigrant experience are not regularly presented to me. Sahar provides that viewpoint which is exciting, but is not so unfamiliar. Farah draws upon familiar archetypes: the assimilationist daughter, partying into the late hours; the dutiful son, studying for a test; the kind-hearted mother, taken for granted. But through these time tested characters often Sahar challenges the traditional understanding of immigrant families and their perceived tension between obsessive achievement and fear of corruption by the West’s lax morals.
While this family drama is the most artfully and poignantly constructed element of the film, the subtlety and the excellence of it is in the way it intersects with its rather largely absent crime element foreshadowed in the beginning. Sahar it seems is missing, and similarly to how Farah draws upon familiar archetypes for his characters, you’re expected to draw upon a wealth of reporting knowledge you have acquired over the years— of sexual repressiveness in the Muslim community, of shame and honor-killings. The awful anger of men closest to their victims.
If that was all there was to Sahar, its effective writing and dynamite acting performances would hold it in favor. However there is a subtle yet, in my mind, important wrinkle in the plotting that complicates this straight-forward narrative. The father’s anger comes in part from stress. He blames the daughter for the callers late at night, but he’s changed the number three times! That doesn’t sound like suitors. The smashing of his car’s window occurs outside the bounds of his daughters social freedom. He sees her liberty as a threat but to what extent is that fear and compensation for the pains of domestic racism? By centering the viewpoint though the brother, we represent his uncertainty in the tragedy that follows. Is it the past or the present that has taken his sister from him? The duality he represents through his adherence to traditional values and his potential for an assimilated future, mirror the two possibilities for his sister’s downfall: revenge in the form of values his father cannot let go, or intolerance from the community from whom they cannot be accepted. Through it ambiguity reigns. The mystery is not solved and the participation of the audience in making assumptions as to this young girl’s fate is the source of the film’s power.