Featuring no overly dramatic scenes, or a loud climax, Zain Duraie’s (writer/director) restrained short Salam (Give Up The Ghost) proves that less can mean oh so much more and still pack a resounding punch. A subtle, but emotional tale of the tension having trouble conceiving can place on a relationship, while this 15-minute short is set in Jordan and definitely uses the cultural traditions of the Arab world as a canvas, the story has universal undercurrents, emphasized by a mesmerizing lead performance.
Infertility can put an overbearing strain on a couple, irrevocably altering the relationship. Anywhere in the world, both womanhood and manhood are still tied to being able to bear children, and in the Arab world having children is the expected step after getting married. It only makes sense that when faced with the inability to deliver, this deeply rooted pressure can drive some to dark and inconsiderate emotional places, behaving out of character, influenced by society’s expectations.
Duraie tackles the issue with authenticity and confidence, with Give Up The Ghost shedding light on an experience that is most definitely not limited to the Arab world – having a woman take the blame for the inadequacies of a man, and dealing with the fallout. Though the direction the narrative ultimately takes is specific to the region, it stems from a form of sexism that is present worldwide, especially in this specific situation. But rarely has it been depicted on screen so genuinely and subtly.
Duraie grabs her audience’s attention by not handing them all the layers of her narrative on a silver platter. This is a film where what happens off screen, and what is left unsaid, is as important as what is seen and heard. It’s this approach that amplifies the realism and engagement in the short, allowing the audience to have room to process the events and connect the dots, instead of being overcrowded with less important information.
From the opening shot, it is clear that the film will never try to say more than is needed and will solely focus on the emotional journey of its main character, with no distractions. The choice to not show the parents on screen was Duraie’s way of reflecting an “outer society pressure”, in a creative manner. By not seeing them, it effectively adds a coldness to the interaction, that echoes how the main character is living it and immerses us in her perspective.
While Give Up The Ghost is a lyrical title for the film, the title in Arabic, Salam, is the one word I would use to describe the film. The film is its titular character. We experience the film through her, learning things at the same time as her and reacting to them in the same instant. Aiming to create what she describes as an “internal character film”, Duraie employs specific sound design and well-considered cinematography to follow the inner journey of Salam.
We hear what her brain is focusing on at any given moment and shot handheld, the camera mostly focuses on her with close-ups. With this clever, but understated approach to production, it is Maria Zreik’s powerful performance that guarantees the success of the film. Zreik’s compelling delivery takes us on an emotional journey, effortlessly flipping between worry, annoyance, deception and numbness. As the story unfolds, we feel her inner turmoil, while also feeling for her predicament. It’s hard not to be moved.
Give Up The Ghost premiered in the Orizzonti section of the Biennale in Venice in 2019 and went on to win the Best Arab Short Award at El Gouna in Egypt. and recently was released online as the Vimeo Staff Pick Award of the Palm Springs ShortFest 2020.